By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Are soy foods the new milk?

It seems like I’m always running into someone at the grocery who’s warning me about eating tofu or soy-based faux meats. Last week, the checker looked concerned about a couple protein bars I was buying. She said she couldn’t eat “those.” Soy, she intoned.

This week I encountered a man studying the labels on the alternative cheese. He bought five packs of one brand made with almonds. It didn’t have soy, he said knowingly. Yes, I nodded back, I understood. Kind of. I tossed some of the almond cheese into my cart and resolved to learn more.

I was tired of soy much confusion.

Tofu and Noodles

Tofu and noodles. Yum? (Photo:

This soy discussion does remind me of the milk debate, which is at least 4 gallons deep and extremely polarized with Weston A. Price advocates facing off vigorously against those who claim Monsanto’s failed, but still active, rBGH experiment is of no consequence. (To recap: Milk is either a strong protein which you must force into your kids’ gullets twice a day (many pediatricians say) or a “weak protein” meant for calves not kids. It should be consumed raw to get all the nutrients, or highly pasteurized to kill all the bacteria. It’s mightily important that you drink only skim milk to avoid dangerous fats, or critical that you avoid skim milk, which has been stripped of all nutritional value. The growth hormone rBGH is nothing at all, or its shoving kids into puberty before they learn to read.)

See what I mean? Milk. Confusing.

And it’s much the same for soy. It’s either a health food darling, or a false prophet.

Once upon a time, say in the 1990s, soy was golden. We’d discovered (like the Chinese thousands of years before) that it was a powerful protein, packing 10 grams in just half a cup, and without all those concerning fats attached to other proteins, like ribeye. Just like the calcium-rich milk that pediatricians kept nagging you about, soy was becoming a seductive package of positives.

In fact, it was on an escalator to the health Hall of Fame, where it would rescue us from clogged arteries, insidious cholesterol and the near certainty that we (women) would get breast cancer.

Americans, perennially seeking the quick fix, softened their views on Tofu, began drinking soy milk, and nibbling and mispronouncing edamame.

Of course, like so many things, this “new” health food started turning up in everything. (Did you know American farmers grow a lot of soybeans?) Like so many foods today – flax, chia seeds, quinoa – it wore a halo of good associations.

And then the pendulum swung against soy. The backlash, powered in part by the 2005 book The Whole Soy Story by Dr. Kaayla Daniel, was probably at least partly deserved. Soy had crept into a lot of products and that now we were worried about its estrogenic properties. In addition, the vast majority of US soybeans were genetically modified (GM). We were eating a GM food that could be scrambling signals to our endocrine system.

This being America, we naturally became hysterical.

Soy products were suddenly a hot button issue. Studies emerged showing that soy raised the risk of breast cancer. Stories circulated about soy-eating men growing man breasts. There was talk about how soy over-consumption could cause thyroid issues.

None of this has been shown to be true.

Soy foods

Edamame, a whole soy food, and minimally processed soy milk, still good for you.

As it turns out, we don’t really know if soy prevents or triggers breast cancer. The studies are conflicting and inconclusive. The effects of soy on male hormones also are largely unknown. The underlying theory, that phytoestrogens in soy could promote or depress estrogenic activity in the body remains worthy of study, and is still being studied, but we don’t understand all the mechanisms.

We know that breast cancer rates among Asian women are lower than for American women, and it’s long been believed that this is linked to their soy-enriched diet. But beyond eating tofu and edamame, they also eat more vegetables and fish, and less red meat than Americans.

And those male breasts? They’re mostly, and possibly entirely, apocryphal.

The effect of soy on the thyroid is still under study. Thyroid issues, including cancer, have been on the rise in the US. Is soy to blame, or something else? The hunt is still on, and experts do advise that if you have an existing thyroid issue, you should limit soy-based foods.

As the pendulum swings back toward a center ground, many experts have stepped forward to guide us out of the soy fog.

Soy is still good for you

Nutritionists and doctors now say that soy products in their basic or minimally processed forms – tofu, soy milk, edamame, tempeh, miso – are just fine to eat, even good for you.

That’s especially true for tempeh, soy sauce and miso, which are fermented, conferring a positive effect on the human gut (or so they say!).

“In truth, good human studies on soy are limited, but those we do have suggest that soy may help lower cholesterol, prevent cancer, increase bone density, protect the kidneys of people with diabetes, and relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes,” says Dr. Dr. Mark Hyman on his health blog.

Dr. Mehmet Oz still touts soy as helping defend against breast cancer, but notes that no one should eating heaping bowls of it. One or two servings of soy a day is plenty, he says.

The American Heart Association (AHA) still believes tofu has a righteous place on your plate even if its cholesterol-lowering magic has been mostly debunked, according to a report on protein by the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The AHA committee says that even though soy protein itself has little direct effect on cholesterol, soy foods are good for the heart and blood vessels because they usually replace less healthful choices, like red meat, and because they deliver plenty of polyunsaturated fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and are low in saturated fat.”

This is great news for vegetarians and vegans who want to keep soy in their protein line up.

Soy Isolates, not so much

The taint lingers, however, over processed soy

Processed soy foods, as well as overblown health claims about soy generally, are what prompted Dr. Daniel to sound the alarm with her book.

She advises avoiding soy burgers, soy cheese, soy energy bars, soy ice cream and soy powders.

She and others who are soy-wary say that too many (though not all) of these products contain soy isolates or soy powder, which have been separated from the whole soybean via processing.

They are a couple overarching criticisms of these ingredients: First, they do not provide the high-protein benefit of whole soy products. Secondly, unless they are organic, they may contain residues of hexane, a chemical used in processing. Another concern is that soy in many forms is becoming ever-present in many processed foods, particularly because GM soybean oil has been such a go-to oil for grocery baked goods.

Dr. Daniel lofts additional arguments against soy foods, including the fact that soy contains phytates, which block the absorption of some nutrients. Others look at phytates, however, as being perfectly acceptable, and performing an appropriate function in the body. This area, too, remains understudied.

Dr. Andrew Weil, as he explains in this video, boils it down like this: Whole soy, go for it. These new soy derivatives, maybe hold off.

As for tofu, that white block of versatile soybean curd that’s so adored by many vegetarians and ridiculed by the uninitiated or unconvinced, Andrea Nguyen, a cooking teacher in Northern California and author of “Asian Tofu,” says it’s not a miracle ingredient. But it is a tasty, low-fat food that you should learn how to cook properly before crossing it off your list.

“The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet, one-size-fits all approach to healthy eating,” Nguyen says on her blog. “With regard to soy, all the claims about the health benefits of eating lots of soy – from lowering cholesterol and mitigating hot flashes to preventing breast and prostate cancer, helping weight loss, and preventing osteoporosis – are inconclusive. So are the claims against eating soy.”

So enjoy tofu, if you like it, she says. It’s completely healthy — in moderation.

Which is what the Harvard protein review recommended in its “Straight Talk about Soy” section:

“Eat soy in moderation. Soybeans, tofu, and other soy-based foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to go overboard: Two to 4 servings a week is a good target; eating more than that likely won’t offer any health benefits and we can’t be sure that there is no harm.”

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