All About Soy
There are few foods that divide the nutrition camp as much as soy. In recent years, soy has become popular in North American diets as it has been recognized as a plant food that, when compared with other plants, is relatively high in protein. Soy has become a staple among vegan, vegetarian and plant-based enthusiasts, consumed in the form of soy milk, tofu, faux cheeses or veggie burgers. However, like many foods in today’s world, soy has a “love it” or “hate it” following. Soy has received a lot of negative press; scan the media or surf the internet and you’re bound to come across hundreds of scary claims about soy. Be it the digestion concerns, allergy concerns or estrogen concerns, there are plenty of reasons why soy based foods have received some criticism. But are they true?
As with most things nutrition, there are good arguments on both sides, so let’s have a look.
Soy has multiple arguments against it, but when you boil it all down, the primary concerns fall into three categories.
1. Phytic Acid
Phytic acid is a natural substance found in plants which binds to nutrients in the food. Its role is to prevent legumes, grains, nuts and seeds from sprouting until it is time to germinate. Untreated, phytic acid can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption. Because it binds to nutrients and inhibits absorption it can cause deficiencies over time. In order to deactivate phytic acid, the preparation process or cooking method is vitally important. Appropriate preparation methods to reduce phytic acid include; soaking, sprouting and fermenting. However these methods are often not practiced in large-scale soy production and therefore can cause issues when consumed.
A particular point of controversy concerning soy is its content of phytoestrogens. Many foods, including soy, naturally contain phytoestrogens. In plants, these serve as defense mechanisms, however in the human body are similar in structure to estrogen. Phytoestrogens, similar to environmental estrogens, can mimic the body’s natural estrogen. These phytoestrogens are able to trick the body into thinking it is producing sufficient estrogen, however don’t actually perform any of the vital functions that real estrogen does. Therefore, this “faulty” estrogen can lead to hormone imbalances in both male and females by either stimulating or inhibiting estrogen production.
3. Genetically Modified Soy
In recent years there has been a large increase in the overall production and harvesting of soy products, specifically in North America. Genetic modification of soybeans was introduced to crops in 1995 today, in an effort to increase crop production. Using GM, or genetically modified, soy allows farmers to produce a higher yield and a faster rate. In 2015 it was reported that somewhere at least 60% of soy crops in Canada were GMO. Research on GMOs is still limited, however there is some indication that the crops and pesticides used on them are carcinogenic. Although there is still wide spread confusion, it is reported that in Canada we do not allow for GMO beans to be used in the production of food.
So, now that we know the concerns, it begs the question “Should we be eating it?”. One of the largest counter arguments to the no-soy movement is the fact that Asian cultures have consumed soy for multiple generations and are known as some of the healthiest cultures in the world. So how can this be?
In Asian cultures soybeans are most frequently consumed in their whole form. That means, the whole bean in a cooked or fermented format, a sharp contrast from the burgers, veggie dogs and faux cheeses we consume them in North America. But before you go home and throw out all of your soy sauce, tempeh and miso soup, note that the way we prepare soy has a huge impact on its nutritional value. Think about it this way, the nutritional value of raw cacao is dramatically different and far superior to that a Mars Bar. You know what I mean? Soy, in its fermented forms, can be a beneficial and healthy part of the diet. Similar to the fermentation of naturally leavened sourdough breads (check out this blog post or this blog post for more info), the digestibility of fermented foods is far more beneficial than their unfermented forms. Fermented forms of soy like miso, tempeh, tamari and natto can be incorporated into a healthy balanced diet in small amounts.
And finally, we must consider the volume at which we are consuming soy. A typical North American plant-based diet is loaded in soy-based products from soy milk with cereals, soy protein bars, faux cheeses, ice creams, yogurts, veggie burgers and veggie dogs. Soy is often consumed multiple times per day, often at every meal, and at this scale of consumption can be potentially problematic for all of the noted reasons above. In fact, most foods in excess can become problematic.
So, should we eat it?
Truthfully, the answer to this question is highly case dependent in my opinion. When it comes to soy how it influences each individual will vary from person to person and from female to male. Each person is biochemically unique and therefore what we consume will affect us all in very different ways. For women or men with hormonal concerns of unbalances I would suggest removing soy completely from the diet. With that being said, I think small doses of the right formats of soy can be included in a healthy diet. Here are some suggestions to ensure you do it the best way possible.
- Say no to processed and refined forms of soy (powders, formulas, milks, burgers, cheeses, TVP, etc…)
- Focus on fermented forms of soy in small amounts (tempeh, miso, natto, tamari).
- Use soy as a condiment, and less as a primary component of the meal.
- Limit overall consumption of soy products and focus on using other plant-based alternatives.
- Always use organic soy to avoid GMO soy crops.
For more information, check out some of these great articles about soy.
WestonAPrice.org – Myths & Truths About Soy
Precisionnutrition.com – All About Soy
Authoritynutrition.com – Is Soy Bad or Good For You
Mercola.com – Fermented Soy
Tujawellness.com – To Soy or Not to Soy: The Truth About Soy