Some people think soy is a great plant-based protein option, but what are the dangers of eating soy? Learn about the risks and benefits, plus some ways to consume soy safely.
Why do we eat soy?
With the rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, soy has stepped onto the scene as a source of plant-based protein. Those who don’t eat meat praise the protein content of soy. One cup of boiled soybeans contains about 29 grams of protein which is comparable to a serving of meat. Soy also contains vitamins and minerals such as copper and phosphorus.
However, other people denounce soy as dangerous or, at the least, not optimal for frequent consumption. The Paleo movement in particular, has helped highlight the dangers of eating soy, ranging from the phytoestrogens present in soy to the high levels of antinutrients in soy.
Where are soy and soy products in our food?
In the United States, soy is most commonly consumed as a replacement for animal products, as an emulsifier in processed foods, or in soy sauce. You’ll also find soy in these common products:
- Soy-based infant formula, as a replacement for breast milk or milk-based formula
- Chocolate bars, processed foods, and some supplements as soy lecithin used to preserve shelf life and improve texture
- Tempeh and tofu, as a replacement for meat
- Soy milk, as a replacement for dairy milk
- Condiments such as soy sauce or miso paste used to add flavor to traditional Asian dishes
- Natto and edamame, as snacks or side dishes
- Soy protein isolate, as plant-based protein powder, either used alone as a powder supplement or used in protein bars/bites/etc.
- Processed and conventional meat: even though soy is used as a meat alternative, it has also been used as a filler in processed meat and the diets of conventionally-raised animals are often supplemented with GMO soy feed.
What is the controversy surrounding soy?
Soy is controversial for a few different reasons, the most common being the isoflavones present in soy (see below for more information). Soy is also one of the top 8 allergens in the United States–such a highly allergenic food invites controversy, whether founded or not, unto itself.
Other controversial characteristics of soy include GMOs, antinutrients, and goitrogens. Here is some more in-depth information about each controversial characteristic of soy.
1. Isoflavones (phytoestrogens)
Isoflavones, also known as phytoestrogens, are particularly concentrated in soy. These natural compounds have a chemical structure similar to the human hormone known as estrogen; thus, they can attach to estrogen receptor sites in the human body and affect natural estrogen production and metabolism.
Having excess estrogen in the body can have an array of health consequences. These include, but are not limited to: breast cancer (though some research indicates a lower risk of breast cancer in women who consume soy), estrogen dominance, acne due to imbalanced hormones, endometriosis, male infertility(though more research is needed), and–in rare cases–gynecomastia (male breast growth).
The possible manipulation of estrogen as a result of eating soy or soy products is a big potential danger of eating soy. The harmful effects may be exacerbated with non-organic, highly processed forms of soy.
As much as 80% of soybean production in the United States comes from genetically modified soybeans. GMOs were only introduced to the public food supply in 1994 and there has been no opportunity to conduct long-lasting studies of the effects of GMO-containing diets. We do not have credible information on the safety of GMOs, which has led many people to forgo consuming GMO foods completely.
Soy, like other legumes, is high in phytic acid. Phytic acid is an antinutrient, meaning it is the plant’s natural protective system that impedes the absorption of nutrients when consumed.
If you’re eating soy for the high levels of nutrients, some of them are bound to antinutrients and are therefore unavailable to your body. Antinutrients can even bind to other minerals and vitamins present in your body, leaching them from you. Soy also contains protease inhibitors, which inhibit the metabolism of certain types of proteins.
Soy contains naturally higher levels of goitrogens, which can interfere with proper thyroid function when consumed in excess.
What are the possible benefits of eating soy foods?
Some health experts encourage the consumption of soy for its health benefits. Like most foods, there are both downsides and upsides to consuming soy. Keep in mind that when consuming soy, you’ll get the most nutrient density from organic, non-GMO soy in its whole form.
Here are some commonly perceived benefits of eating soy and the associated research.
1. Possible Lower Risk of Breast Cancer
Some research has shown that females who consume soy prior to and during pre-adolescent breast development have a lower risk for breast cancer later in life.
2. Lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol)
Though soy has been touted as beneficial for lowering high levels of Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the amount is indirect and not significant. The FDA has revoked the claim that soy is beneficial for lowering LDL levels.
3. High in nutrients
Soy is particularly high in iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and copper.
4. Lowers blood pressure
There is data to suggest that soy is hypotensive, meaning it helps lower blood pressure, and therefore can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Safer soy consumption recommendations
If you have digestive issues such as leaky gut or gut dysbiosis or autoimmune disorder, consider avoiding all soy altogether.
If you choose to incorporate soy into your diet, it’s best to be sure you’re consuming it in moderation and that you’re getting high quality, properly prepared soy. Ideally, the soy you consume should be:
- Organic: at least 80% of soy in the United States is genetically modified, but you can avoid both GMOs and heavy pesticide use by choosing certified organic soy
- Soaked/sprouted: like all legumes and beans, the digestibility of soy can be improved through soaking and/or sprouting. This traditional method of preparation lowers antinutrients and makes it easier to digest (though a significant amount of the antinutrients still remain.)
- Fermented: fermented soy products like tempeh and natto offer an impressive nutrient profile, probiotics, and increased digestibility.
- Whole: avoid soy protein isolates, which contain all of the isoflavones and antinutrients with none of the vitamins and minerals. Soy protein isolate is notoriously difficult to digest.
The moderate benefits of properly prepared, well-sourced soy do not outweigh the potential risks of digestive distress, hormonal imbalance, and nutrient depletion for those with compromised health. Avoiding soy in your diet can free you to include more nutrient-dense foods and help you avoid the risks associated with eating soy.
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