Soy: Practically Perfect or ?
From essential amino acids to a wide range of antioxidants, soy has been touted as the new “miracle” food, and with what appears to be good reason. Consuming 25 grams of soy protein and 30-50 milligrams of soy isoflavones daily has been shown to lower bad cholesterol, reduce artery clogging plaque, [and] protect against many digestive cancers while helping the body to regulate estrogen. (Gilbert, May 2001).
With the desire of many American’s to develop a healthier lifestyle, lose weight, reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and a host of other ailments, soy seems like the optimal way to achieve this goal. Melanie Polk, registered dietician and director of Nutrition Education at the AICR, says, “Research on soy is a relatively new area. It does appear that soy is a health protector. It is reasonable to incorporate some soy into a mostly plant-based diet of vegetables, fruits, grains and beans.” (Gilbert, September 2001, para. 10)
The Food and Drug Administration approved new claims regarding soy foods and their effects on coronary heart disease (CHD) which took effect on 26 October 1999. Based on their findings, the FDA reports, “Coronary heart disease, one of the most common and serious forms of cardiovascular disease, is a major public health concern because it causes more deaths in the U.S. than any other disease. Risk factors for CHD include high total cholesterol levels and high levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This new health claim is based on evidence that including soy protein in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may also help to reduce the risk of CHD. Recent clinical trials have shown that consumption of soy protein compared to other proteins such as those from milk or meat, can lower total and LDL-cholesterol levels.” (FDA Talk Papers, para. 2,3) While Soy Info Online states, ” a balanced diet with the addition of occasional use of small amounts of soy products provides the maximum health-building and disease prevention benefits. It is best to avoid getting sucked into any future “soy supplement hype” and stick to occasional, small intake of healthier organic soy products such as tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk, natto, tamari and shoyu.” (Soy Info Online, para. 2)
Sounds wonderful, right? Unfortunately there is no such thing as a free lunch, or in this case, a perfect food. There are various maladies that a diet rich in the soy isoflavones can contribute to, initial research suggests. These include, but are not limited to: hypothyroidism, certain types of breast cancer, and in the case of an infant with a long-term feeding of soy formula, increased risk of thyroid cancer. (D’Mello, 2002)
Sally Fallon and Mary Enig agree that there are serious problems which have resulted from the significant increase in soy consumption. In infants who consumed soy formula instead of either breast milk or dairy-based formula, the instance of soy isoflavones were between 13,000 to 22,000 times higher than in infants on cows milk formula. (Fallon and Enig, para. 65)
There are also concerns about the effects of soy on the hormonal development of these children. Research has shown that male infants undergo a “testosterone surge” where testosterone levels may be as high as that of an adult man. Upon maturation, males who are exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic oestrogen, which has similar effects as the phytoestrogens in soy, had testes which were decreased in size. (Fallon and Enig, para. 57) In female children, the early onset of puberty has been linked to potential environmental oestrogens. One example is the 1986 Puerto Rico Premature Thelarche study which illustrated that soy formula was the single most prevalent dietary factor in early onset puberty. (Fallon and Enig, para. 60)
Phytoestrogen biochemist Mike Fitzpatrick illustrates a prime example in an open letter to the Food and Drug Administration regarding the acceptance of soy isoflavones to the Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) list. He states, “There have been several studies that attempt to define the acute toxicity of soy isoflavones in various experimental animals and these are cited in the ADM document. However, the prime concern in relation to estrogenic compounds such as the soy isoflavones is the potential for chronic endocrine system and reproductive toxicity and alterations to the immune system. As such, the harmful effects of soy isoflavones would not have been obvious if they did exist. A compelling example is the estrogenic drug, diethylstilbestrol (DES). Treatment with DES continued for over 20 years before physicians fortuitously made the association between its use and the incidence of a rare type of malignancy in DES daughters. In the case of soy isoflavones, however, the fact that estrogenic compounds are present in soy foods has not been general knowledge to health professionals until quite recently. Therefore, any link between effect and cause is unlikely to have been made. Until more extensive epidemiological studies are undertaken with clearly identified endpoints (such as breast cancer, thyroid disease or immune system dysfunction), it must be concluded that there is no certainty that soy isoflavones are safe at all.” (Fitzpatrick, 15 18)
Soy was originally introduced to agricultural America in the 1890’s as a forage crop and soil renewal resource. In 1913, soy was a minor crop which was listed in the USDA handbook as being an industrial product (Fallon and Enig, para. 5). It was not until the early 1920’s that soy was used commercially. Surprisingly enough, it was not considered a viable food source, but rather an oil base for soap, paint and varnish. (Du Bois, para. 2, 3) During World War II, soy became a consumed item due to shortages of coconut oil and protein sources both in the United States and overseas. From 1940 to 1946, soybean production increased almost threefold from 78 million to 201 million bushels produced annually. This has increased to 2.558 billion bushels of soybeans produced in 1994 with a market value of $13.813 billion, at an average of $5.40 per bushel. (Callanan)
In just under 60 years, soy has gone from a substance which one would never have considered consuming, to a component of almost every commercially produced foodstuff. From ice cream to bread, microwave popcorn to fried chicken, soy has deeply ingrained itself in every facet of the food market.
Based on the profits the soybean crop produces, it’s understandable that the Soybean Grower’s Association would be less than sympathetic in response to the call for additional research towards potential negative effects that soy could have on the human body. However based on the myriad of allegations from nutritional scientists, biologists and doctors, it would seem that this is definitely something which requires far more investigation.
Outside of the negative effects that have been suggested due to soy consumption, there is also the issue with genetically modified (GM) foods. A genetically modified soybean was introduced to the food supply in both the United States and Great Brittan in 1997. These soybeans are identified as being “Round-Up Ready” (which are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate) which is a broad-range spectrum herbicide which is has not been identified as being toxic to humans or animals.
While the Round-Up Ready soybean has been approved for consumption in Brittan, it has not been approved for cultivation; however it has been approved for cultivation in the United States and constituted between 5 10% in 1997 and ~30% in 1998. (John Innes Center, para. 1, 4) This genetically modified soybean has been in the food chain for approximately seven years, and at this time it is all but impossible to tell whether the food you are consuming has been genetically modified. There are currently no regulations requiring disclosure of the nature of the soybean which can be problematic for people with certain allergies, as one of the strains of soybeans were spliced with genes from a Brazil nut. For people with an allergy to tree nuts, this could be highly dangerous. Proponents would say since the potential allergy was discovered before the modified soybean went into the public food supply, it would show that the testing practices which have been put in place are certainly adequate. (Radio National, Coveney and Fry, para. 14, 15)
The primary concern based on this information is that organizations such as Greenpeace have found “mystery DNA” in genetically modified soybeans which cannot be identified. How are we supposed to identify possible allergens if the genetic DNA is not even able to be traced back to specific modifications? Doug Parr, Greenpeace-UK’s chief scientific advisor asks, “If Monsanto [the company which genetically modified the soybeans] did not even get this most basic information right, what should we then think about the validity of all their safety tests and experiments, which are based upon these data?” (Kirby, para. 7)
While studies on soy and the various effects of soy consumption are still being carried out by private organizations, for all intents and purposes, soy appears to be here to stay. As there is still a great discrepancy between whether soy is safe and if so, how much can be consumed without negative consequences, it is up to consumers to ensure that they are aware of the various ingredients in commercially purchased foods and that they are educated on what effects these ingredients have on the human body. Does this mean you should cut all instances of soy out of your diet? Even more importantly, if you wanted to, could you?
As an individual with hypothyroidism, I have taken the initiative to move my family away from commercial products containing any type of soy. This is a difficult adjustment as so many things we have taken for granted are not acceptable with the new dietary restrictions we have self-imposed. We no longer can buy bread in the grocery store, and most types of snack foods that the kids love are now off limits as well. While this will be a definite benefit to our health, we have to weigh our desire for a specific food with the potential effect that the soy consumption could contribute to.
Is this the way we want to live? No, but for our family, it far out weighs the alternative.