Soy: Friend or Foe?
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
You may have seen a bit in the nutritional news about soy. As with any information about food and diet, the research seems to be a moving target. But, many assumptions about the dangers of soy consumption have been debunked. A healthier diet starts with plants. And soy, a legume, can become part of your weekly plant-based diet. We will walk you through the research, the kinds of soy that are best to eat, and the benefits of adding this amazing food to your diet.
What is Soy, and Where is it Found?
When most people think of soy, they probably think of tofu. You may be surprised to learn that soy is an ingredient in a wide variety of processed foods from baked goods, bread, gum, and many others. Other soy products are tempeh, soy milk, miso, and of course, soy sauce.
As more and more people move away from an animal-based diet, soy-based meats are gaining in popularity. You may have heard of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Even McDonalds and Burger King are now offering these meat alternatives. The growing choices of meat-like substitutes are designed to mimic the real thing and provide options for just about any meal plan.
The Benefits of Soy
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you already know the benefits of soy and the many ways to prepare it. Tofu, particularly, absorbs flavors like spices and herbs, making it a delicious alternative to meat products. You might be surprised to learn about soy’s health benefits.
Soybeans are an excellent source of protein low in cholesterol and saturated fat, two of the problems with animal proteins. Soy has cardiovascular benefits and lowers blood pressure.
Soy intake boosts your fiber intake, which promotes a healthy gastrointestinal system.
Soybeans are a good source of polyunsaturated fats, which have heart health benefits.
Soy foods are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including B-vitamins, iron, zinc, and antioxidants.
Soy foods are a good source of phytochemicals, also called isoflavones. Isoflavones play a role in preventing postmenopausal bone loss and certain cancers like breast cancer.
Soy may also reduce menopausal symptoms due to isoflavones.
Myth Busters About Soy
Myth: Soy consumption increases your risk for breast and other types of cancer.
Fact: Soy contains phytoestrogens or plant-based estrogen. Estrogen plays a role in breast cancer and sexual reproduction leading to the soy controversy. Studies looking at the link between soy on humans have not shown any harmful effects. The studies that showed a link between soy and cancer were conducted on rats, and it was found that rats metabolize soy differently than humans. In fact, some studies show that soy actually reduces cancer risk.
Myth: After a diagnosis of prostate cancer, avoid soy.
Fact: According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, “Among men with prostate cancer preparing for or following prostate surgery, or following a watchful waiting approach after diagnosis, supplements of soy protein or isoflavones for periods ranging from 6 weeks to 2 years have shown either no effect or a decrease in progression of prostate cancer.”
Myth: Processed soy foods are an unhealthy choice. The fear is that more processed soy foods concentrate isoflavones which increases cancer risk.
Fact: Soy protein isolate powder and textured soy protein don’t contain any more isoflavones than plainly roasted soybeans. Some forms of isolated soy protein lose as much as 80 to 90 percent of isoflavones in processing. The more significant issue is what other unhealthy ingredients are in a soy product, such as sugar or high sodium content.
What Kind of Soy Should You Eat?
In a word, start with the premise that all soy you eat should be organic. Up to 90 percent of the US’s soybean crops are genetically modified to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. By law, organic produce cannot be genetically modified. The other advantage of organic soy is that it has a higher nutritional profile, including a higher protein level. Animal-based protein is implicated in several diseases, and the environmental consequences are significant. A move to plant-based protein, like soy makes good sense on many different levels.
Now, the specifics. If you are new to soy, the idea of eating tofu may not be appealing. Start with soy-based burgers, ground beef, or soy milk. Soy-based meat-like products, however, are very processed and can be high in sodium and other unhealthy ingredients. A focus on fresh plants should be the foundation of your diet, with plant-based meat being an adjunct, not the primary nutritional source. That’s why tofu or tempeh is the least processed of the soy choices (unless you are eating soybeans). There are hundreds of recipes online, and here is the start of some healthy and colorful tofu recipes.
The bottom line about soy is that it is a friend and a good one if you are careful in your choices. We can’t emphasize enough that a fresh plant-based diet is the foundation of good nutritional health. The less processed the food that you eat, the better, and that includes soy.