Soy – to eat or not to eat?

The humble soy bean has been the subject of fierce controversy in recent years, leading to confusion and anxiety amongst consumers, especially mothers. On the one hand, soy is touted as the panacea for dairy-intolerant infants; for menopause-related complaints; for heart disease and cancer prevention; and for protein-seeking vegetarians. On the other hand, it is the devil incarnate, directly responsible for the premature sexual development of our daughters; for enhancing abnormal growths in breast cancer patients; and for causing a myriad allergic reactions. If you are left wondering whether or not to eat soy, and how often, you’re not alone. This article explains when and how soy should be consumed, and provides you with practical answers to frequently asked questions.

It all started in the East…

Soy beans have been an important part of the Asian diet for millennia. Interest in soy in the West began some 30 years ago, when one scientific study after another linked the Asians’ penchant for soy with more favourable health statistics compared with ours. Overall Asians enjoy better heart health, much lower cancer rates, far fewer menopausal symptoms (there is, for instance, no word in Japanese for ‘hot flushes’) and much lower osteoporosis rates.

 If soy beans have negative effects, nine times out of ten it’s down to incorrect and unbalanced consumption rather than an inherent defect in the soy bean itself. 

This epidemiological evidence spurred years of further research, which has shown the soy bean to be a rich source of (plant) protein, unsaturated fat, fibre, iron, calcium and folic acid. Better still, it contains no cholesterol yet plenty of antioxidants and estrogen-like substances (called ‘phytoestrogens’). Once Western science had established what the Asians have known for ever, the scene was set to declare the soy bean a ‘super food’, all the more so as it was cheap and easy to grow, harvest and process.

And what happened when it moved to the West

In an unfortunately typical Western reaction – “soy is good, right? so let’s have as much of it as we can” – all things soy suddenly became precious foods to be consumed as often and as much as we possibly could. Overnight supermarket shelves heaved with soy milk, soy cheese, soy yoghurt, soy ice cream, veggie burgers, veggie sausages, soy formula, TVP, soy snacks, soy margarine… you get the gist. Not to mention soy becoming a hidden ingredient in many refined and pre-packaged foods, courtesy of the food industry: soy oil, soy powder, soy flour, soy fibre, soy isoflavones and soy protein isolate, to mention but a few examples. Unless you read the small print of ingredients lists, you may not even be aware that you and your family consume soy regularly, if unintentionally, on top of your deliberate soy choices. Thus, within one generation we have moved from eating little or no soy to eating it en masse, and in many ways the poor soy bean never even knew existed.

Throughout this soy bonanza no one cared to check exactly how or how frequently soy was consumed in the East, where in a real-life, millennia-long practical trial in humans it has proven to be so very useful. ‘Soy is soy, isn’t it?’ so goes the thinking. So long as it is soy, it must be good. Well, not quite.

The difference between East and West

A quick look to our East shows that in Asian countries soy is eaten in a few limited ways, in small quantities and on a regular basis. It is also eaten as an important part of a diet which has a much lower proportion of animal food (dairy, meat) than ours. It is typically consumed as tofu, miso, natto, tempeh, edamame, soybean sprouts or soy sauce – that’s it. It is never eaten in the forms we know it in the West, at least not in the traditional Asian diets (today’s well-to-do Asians aspire to eat like Westerners, believing burgers and fries to be superior to their own foods). Soy may well be consumed at every Asian meal – miso for breakfast, tofu for lunch and soy sprouts with the evening meal – but always in small amounts (10 grams a day on average in Japan). Little, often, in a few limited ways and in the context of a largely plant-based diet – that’s when soy is beneficial. Asians, for whom soy has been so valuable for millenia, never pour soy milk on their breakfast cereal, munch a veggie burger or tuck into soy ice cream. These are pure Western mutations, by and large developed to provide apparently healthy alternatives to much-loved-yet-not-so-healthy dairy and meat favourites. Unfortunately, as is the nature of mutations, they are rarely advantageous.

Don’t blame the bean

When the excessive consumption of highly processed soy foods (including the supposedly healthy soy milk, infant formula and yoghurt) started showing signs of an experiment gone awry, the culprit was quickly found – the nasty Soy Bean, of course! Not our disproportionate consumption or our bastardization of a good nutrient. We have always been better at blaming others than owning up to our responsibility. The truth is, if soy beans have negative effects, nine times out of ten it’s down to incorrect and unbalanced consumption rather than an inherent defect in the soy bean itself.

Eat it the right way

The good news is soy has been and remains a useful and healthful nutrient worthy of any good diet and far more nutritious than many of the foods we eat on a daily basis. Consumed properly, it is an excellent source of nutrients. There’s no need to give up on it entirely, just to know how to eat it the right way.

Find out Vardit’s advice on the best way to eat soy

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