Soy The Myth – Are Soy Products Healthy?

Soy The Myth – Are Soy Products Healthy?

Having had a long discussion with a friend recently about the merits of soy I thought it worthwhile looking at what the facts say about this often much maligned bean. Many of us know the image that our friends and colleagues have of vegans. A skinny hippie with hemp sandals eating a large bowl of lettuce and block of plain tofu.

Luckily, we know that this image doesn’t represent plant-based eating in the slightest and infact couldn’t be further from the truth. However along with this naive, partly funny and partly sad picture that might come to the uneducated mind is the health concern surrounding all things soy.

In this article, we want to look at the myths that follow soy and ascertain exactly what is true and what is not. So, let’s crack on and ask the question are soy products healthy?

What is Soy?

I guess we should start at the beginning and ask what is soy? The soybean is a legume (podded plant) that is native to East Asia. As a bean soy can be eaten “from the pod’ when cooked or fermented to produce both tempeh and miso paste. Tofu the white tasteless blocks often associate with soy are curdled soy.

Soy can also be process into milk or indeed many other products. Infact processed soy is now used in hundreds of products that are available today such as fake meats and veggie burgers, even some baby formulas contain processed soy

Is tofu healthy

The Soy Controversy

Whenever we mention soy we find that someone has an opinion on it. I guess that is the world we live in where information and of course misinformation is all too readily available.

The majority of us are all too happy to read a headline or summary and take it as gospel without actually doing the research to see if the argument is justified.

So, what are some of the concerns regarding soy are they justified and where have they come from?

The Concerns

So are soy products healthy and what are the main concerns? Well soy contains a class of phytonutrient known as isoflavones. These isoflavones have a chemical structure very similar to estrogen hence why they are also known as phytoestrogens. It is these phytoestrogens that have been blamed for having a negative impact on health.

Some of the claims include decreased fertility and “man boobs” for men. For women, an increase in their risk of breast or cervical cancer and other hormone imbalance-related disorders. However, these claims have been made based on phytoestrogens acting the same in the human body as estrogen when infact they act quite differently.

Although as we have said isoflavones are structurally similar human estrogen, they cannot be created by the human endocrine system. By occupying our estrogen receptors, phytoestrogens actually lower the estrogen levels in our blood instead of raising it!

Addressing the concerns

In fact, it has been proven that consumption of isoflavones is beneficial to the body, not just reducing the risk of breast cancer but reducing the risk of cancer recurrence and improving rates of survival. The American Institute of Cancer Research and American Cancer Society have both conducted research in to soy consumption and concluded that soy is safe for breast cancer patients and the general population.

And as for “man boobs’ and lack of fertility a meta-analysis evaluated the data from 15 different placebo-controlled trials of soy foods, soy protein, or isoflavone supplements. These studies measured various indicators of testosterone levels. These included both total and free testosterone as well as the sex hormone binding globulin. The resulting data showed no effects on testosterone levels, estrogen levels, or sperm quality (1 see foot note).

It’s probably worth mentioning at this stage that soy isn’t the only food that contains phytoestrogens. There is a large range of foods that contain them including, to name just a few, apples, oats, yams, beans, mint, rice, carrots and both beer and bourbon!

is soy healthy edamame beans

Soy and the Thyroid

Another soy concern has been its possible effect on the function of the thyroid. Soy has been reported to cause goiters (an enlarged thyroid gland usually due to lack of iodine), hypothyroidism and even thyroid cancer.

However, studies have since disproved the causal relationship between soy and lowered thyroid function, due to the protective nature of isoflavones. Similarly, adequate intake of iodine stops the formation of goiters in a healthy individual. Good plant sources of iodine include iodised salt, sea vegetables and plants grown in iodine rich soil.

Additionally, population studies have shown that soy has a protective effect against thyroid cancer. A review paper of 14 studies looked at the effects of soy on the thyroid and couldn’t find any adverse effects.

The consumption of any foods with phytoestrogens is only of concern if iodine intake isn’t adequate which is why we should ensure we have a reliable source for iodine.

So where has the soy negativity come from?

I don’t normally like to comment on anyone else’s opinions or claims preferring to look at the data but with soy I think it is worth mentioning that a tremendous amount of anti-soy stories can be traced back to one single group in the US called the Weston A Price Foundation (WAPF).

This organisation says it is dedicated to promoting healthy nutrition by restoring nutrient-dense animal products to the diet. This includes unpasteurised “raw” milk. It says that saturated animal fat is essential for good health and that animal fat intake and high cholesterol levels have no link with heart disease or cancer.

They also claim that vegetarians and vegans have lower life expectancy than meat-eaters. This misinformation of course, completely contradicts the science and the message of The World Health Organisation, The American Dietetic Association and the British Medical Association.

So why would it do this, well maybe we should look at its funding for an answer to that question, but instead let’s move on.

is soy healthy vegan tempeh salad

But isn’t soy bad for the planet?

I love this argument. It is true that a high percentage of the soy grown today is GM and the way it is farmed is not the best for soil nutrients. We then must ask why is that? The answer is due primarily to the fact that only a small portion of soy is consumed directly by humans.

Infact according to the WWF the majority, approximately 85% is used as animal feed, including you may be surprised to know even farmed fish! The demand for meat has increased substantially over the past few decades along with the world population.

Because of this soy harvesting has also increased substantially and is now a major contributor to deforestation. So, soy itself is not the problem here but big agriculture is. The answer then is not to demonise soy but to stop eating so many animal products and to encourage sustainable farming with correct crop rotation.

It is worth remembering that the animal industry is the largest pollutant on the planet bar none. Yes, that includes all transport and all oil extraction. Unfortunately, as humans much of what we do will likely have a negative effect on the environment. As such it is our responsibility to purchase our food from responsible sources preferably local and to encourage this behaviour in others.

The health benefits of soy

Ok so enough of the negativity let’s look at the positives and why there are lots of reasons to include soy in your diet. Nutritionally speaking soy is loaded with goodness. More protein than most legumes with lots of fibre, omega 3 and fatty acids, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, C, and zinc! Few that was a mouthful!

Let’s also not forget the health promoting phytonutrients like isoflavones that reduce the risk of cancer as well as levels of cholesterol. Research also consistently shows that soy consumption is linked to a decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol, with an increase of ((good) HDL cholesterol.

The scientific consensus is clear that soy is an excellent source nutrition and should, therefore, be part of a healthy vegan diet as described here in a position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The British Dietetic Association comes to a similar conclusion stating that “it is clear that soya is a nutritious, safe and palatable part of the diet which fits well with healthy eating guidelines and may have multiple health benefits”. You can see their report here.

And finally, to leave you with another positive statistic. Okinawa, Japan (a blue zone) has a higher percentage of centurions than anywhere else on planet. Their diet is high carb, plant based with lots of soy products which along spiritual well being and exercise is attributed to the root of their longevity.

are soy products healthy soy v egg

Are soy products healthy?

Well I think the evidence is clear that non-GM soy foods are not only safe for everyone but are a nutrient dense food that can provide health benefits. To enjoy soy foods, we recommend that you eat soy from whole food or minimally process sources such as tempeh, edamame, miso, soybean sprouts and tofu.

Ideally try to minimise or avoid processed soy products particularly soy protein isolates that are found in protein supplements, faux meats and cereals. Any women who are worried about Thyroid function should ensure an adequate level of iodine in their diet.

Any finally do mix it up, it’s easy to let soy be the number one go to product for everything but share the love with other great foods such as lentils, beans and quinoa for proteins.

So are soy products healthy, absolutley! Do you regularly eat soy, have you been challenged about its health benefits? We would love to know your thoughts and which soy products you most use? Let us know in the comments below.

(1)Hamilton-Reeves JM, Vazquez G, Duval SJ, et al. Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertil Steril 2010, 94:997-1007.

8 thoughts on “Soy The Myth – Are Soy Products Healthy?”

  • What can I say, I am a Vegan Myself so I cannot agree more with everything you said, funny enough just today I was going to prepare a Spanish tortilla with no eggs and I was watching at your image on the site about tofu and eggs.I have never felt better since I have embraced Veganism and I admire the movement, the people and whoever spread the word.

    • Hi Barbara, thank you so much for your comments. So gald to hear that you are vegan to and are feeling great on it. What do you use to bind your vegan tortilla? We make ours with chickpeas and actually use a dash of sparkling water to help bind it all together.

  • The negativity on Soy is long dated but contrary to what other people believe in, I love Soy and I really recommend it for consumption as it posses wonderful health benefits.

    I wasn’t aware how many foods are available that are actually made from soy. I really want to try Tempeh but not sure if I can buy it locally. Thank you for a really helpful article

  • Soy is one very powerful bean it is used in many energy drinks and food in my mother land so I concur with  you that it has more benefits to our health than most might want to believe . In fact they tell us when giving it to a kid that it is good for them but to make sure you regulate the intake. If it is good for kids then it must be good for adults to so thank you for confirming all of this. I will continue to drink Soy

  • I have a granddaughter that is vegan, and worry that she isn’t getting all the nutrients her body needs. This post makes me feel better because she does eat a lot of soy products. She does eat other produce to but soy has been the one product that had negative warnings. It is nice to know that they are false and we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Thank you for the education. 

    Is there a limit on how much soy a person should eat? She tends to eat a good balance of other produce for meals, but her snacks and some meals seem to be soy items. Is daily intake or even more safe?

    • Thank you for your comment, I’m really happy to hear your granddaughter is vegan. As with any diet she should make it as diverse and natural as possible. If she is eating a whole food plant based diet then she will definitely be getting all of the nutrients that she needs.

  • Hi Ivonne and Kevin and Nelo!

    Thanks so much for sharing a good article to read about soy products, healthy and myths about eating it.

    I like to have soy once in a while, and sometimes I have it on my weekly menu as twice or three times per week, mostly tofu.

    I got the recipe from a friend that marinates tofu for a few hours, then the tofu goes into the oven for a few minutes, and it’s ready to be use in different recipes.

    By this, I can save lots of time to prepare the tofu and it’s always ready in the fridge to cook something with it.

    I was wondering about it what I do is OK for my health or not, I must say that today I’m 60 years old, and a friend told me that soy products will be good for my health, and she also told me to have it often in a different ways so I don’t get tired to have it on the say recipe, what do you think?

    I would love to know what you both and Nelo have to say.

    • Hi Alejandra, thank you for your message. Yes a great idea to have some marinated in the fridge ready to cook. I would recommend you try tempeh which is the fermented soy, we love it marinated in tamari sauce. Let us know if you try it and if you like it

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