Soy’s Healthy Reputation Under Fire
A health claim is a rare privilege in the American marketplace.
Even herbs and supplements that millions use to treat various ailments must be careful not to suggest the product has any health benefit. In 2012 Diamond Foods paid $2.6 million in a false advertising class action settlement because they said walnuts were a “healthy heart” food.
Though many foods may demonstrate healthful benefits, few can legally advertise it. This distinction is a big reason why the once humble soybean became so popular.
Soy food was once considered fake and cheap; something only the poor and hippies ate. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed a label stating that a diet containing 25 grams of soy protein, “may reduce the risk of heart disease,” soy consumption increased dramatically.
The key to soy’s culinary success has been lots of favorable research. One study after another reveals a miracle superfood, good for lowering cholesterol, easing menopausal symptoms, and even preventing cancer. A 2013 pamphlet from the United Soybean Board states that nearly half of U.S. consumers seek out soy foods because of the health benefits associated with the high protein bean.
However, some warn that soy consumption can actually lead to very unhealthy consequences.
When FDA granted soy a heart healthy claim in 1999, two of the agency’s own soy experts criticized the decision. FDA researchers Dr. Daniel Doerge and Dr. Daniel Sheehan wrote a letter in protest pointing to studies showing significant health problems with soy consumption. They describe chemical compounds found in soy as “two-edged swords, conferring both benefits and risk.”
In 2008, nutrition education non-profit the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), sent a citizen petition to the FDA urging regulators to withdraw soy’s alluring disease prevention claim for the sake of public health. The 65-page petition includes studies and comments from researchers highlighting serious problems with soy, suggesting that it would be better identified as a hazard than an agent of healing.
After more than six years and no response from FDA, WAPF is suing the agency to address the petition.
“They are supposed to respond in six months. That’s the law,” said WAPF president, Sally Fallon-Morell. “We never heard a thing. Finally, we were given a grant to pay some attorneys to take this to court so that we will have a hearing.”
Eat With Caution
According to the FDA, soy protein “may partially replace or be used in addition to animal or other vegetable protein sources in the human diet,” but regulators in other countries have taken a much more cautious stance. Switzerland, the UK, France, and Germany have all issued public warnings against soy consumption, especially for children.
Following an extensive investigation, the Israeli Health Ministry called for minimizing soy consumption in 2005 due to evidence of adverse effects on fertility and increased breast cancer risk.
Fallon-Morell says U.S. regulators are reluctant to say anything negative about soy because it is a fundamental part of the American food system.
“All of this soybean oil that’s used in processed foods is what keeps food really cheap in America,” she said. “We have a kind of soy-based economy and a very, very powerful soy industry.”
In 2004, soy protein manufacturer Solae applied for another health label, one claiming that soy foods could prevent cancer. But resistance from nutrition experts forced Solae to abandon the plan before regulators could approve it. “We submitted a document opposing it showing that soy is more likely to cause cancer than prevent it,” said Fallon-Morell. “After two or three go arounds they withdrew their petition.”
American Soy Story
America has used soy for livestock and oil for well over 100 years. Until the 1940s, the United States imported the bulk of its beans from China (soy’s native land). American farmers beefed up domestic soybean production during World War II, when conflict with Japan cut off supply lines. Today, soy falls just behind corn as America’s top crop.
The rise of soy from animal feed to superfood began when food scientists developed partial hydrogenation, a chemical process used to solidify vegetable oil for which soy was the prime candidate. Due to low cost, a long shelf life, and a belief that it was a healthy alternative to saturated fat, trans fat soy oil dominated the processed food market.
Next came the soy cereal, flour, and fake meats. Extracting soy oil leaves behind a high protein byproduct, which was used as an industrial adhesive until manufacturers decided to promote it as food. The only obstacle was public image.
In the 1970s, most Americans instinctively rejected soy-based meals. But marketers gradually overcame consumer resistance by rebranding soy protein as an upscale health food—one validated by science, and treasured in the Orient.
The prevailing idea of soy as a key part of the Asian diet for several millennia is a fable traced to American marketing. In truth, the ancient Chinese used soy more as a fertilizer than a food.
Soy is actually a relative newcomer to the Asian diet. In fact, the Chinese didn’t really start eating soy until they figured out methods to ferment it.
According to nutritionist and author of “The Whole Soy Story,” Dr. Kaayla Daniel, old fashioned soy foods such as miso, natto, soy sauce, and tempeh are genuinely healthy because fermentation neutralizes most of the problematic aspects of the soy plant.
It’s a matter of quantity as much as quality. Daniel says that in traditional Asian diets, soy was primarily used as a condiment. An investigation in the 1930’s found that the Chinese got only 1.5 percent of their daily calories from soy, compared with 65 percent from pork.
Due to strong flavors, fermented soy products are naturally eaten in small portions. “You’re not going to be eating something like natto several times a day,” Daniel said.
However, modern soy protein—shaped into burgers, nuggets, chocolate bars, and other fun foods—is more likely to be consumed in substantial amounts. Daniel says eating a lot of these types of soy products is what leads to health problems.
“Things like soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein are not traditional soy foods at all and they have multiple health risks, both from the soybeans and from the processing,” she said. “If you’re going to recommend soy products for health the only ones we can really support are those old ones.”
Soy and the Thyroid
Those who regularly eat modern soy foods often complain of digestive distress, but a number of endocrine disorders have also been associated with soy consumption, especially thyroid issues. Daniel says for many soy lowers thyroid function, leading to weight gain and lethargy. For others, soy can hype up the gland, or trigger autoimmune thyroid problems, such as Hashiomoto’s disease.
“We have a good 70 years of studies with soy having adverse effects on the thyroid,” she said.
Daniel advises eliminating soy for those with thyroid problems, as well as for children, those with heart disease, women with a family history of breast cancer, or couples experiencing infertility.
“It’s not a minor effect, and it can affect all parts of the body,” she said. “One of the problems with the health claim is people start to think they should eat soy every day and that’s where they start to get into trouble.”
A Few Soy Facts
In 2011, over three billion bushels of soybeans were harvested from nearly 74 million acres of U.S. cropland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bean is heavily subsidized, and most of the harvest is still used to feed livestock.
Henry Ford encouraged a future for soy food, plastics, and fabrics. Ford wore a suit made of soy wool to promote his idea, but the material was so itchy he couldn’t wear it for very long.
Today soy is used to make ink, building materials, fuel, crayons, candles, and lubricants.
Soy has long been known decrease sex drive. “Buddhist monks learned that when tofu consumption went up, the naughty behavior went down. So it was recommended as an aid to celibacy,” said Daniel.
Transgenic soy was introduced to American farms in 1997. By 2007, over 90 percent of U.S. soy crops were genetically engineered. The primary design is for herbicide resistance.
*Image of soybean harvest via Shutterstock.