We’ve covered this topic before, and the comments then were as controversial and split as we are sure they will be again. Here Marisa Miller-Wolfson addresses the soy debate. Is soy sexy or to be dissed like last week’s hook up?
If you don’t live in a vacuum, chances are, you’ve heard soy at turns hailed as a super food and demonized as a potent carcinogen or, (worse?), catalyst of the ever-dreaded MAN-BOOBIES! How can one little bean be the source of so much controversy? How can the studies vary so completely? Where is the consensus?
Actually, there seems to be a consensus among most health professionals, which is that soy can be part of a healthy, varied diet. What they don’t seem to agree on is how much and what kind.
On one end of the spectrum is Kaayla T. Daniel, author of The Whole Soy Story, which links soy to a host of problems from heart disease to cancer. Unsurprisingly, she’s on the board of the Weston Price Foundation, which does promote organic farming but also denigrates plant-based living and promotes high-animal diets, based on claims about cholesterol and animal fat that fly in the face of the most solid western science and leave them wide open to criticism. In the Q&A section of her website, she advises one questioner/vegetarian potluck enthusiast to only attend “the occasional vegetarian potluck” (gee, thanks) and “if possible, stick to old-fashioned soy products (miso, tempeh, natto, shoyu, tamari) and eat them at the levels traditionally consumed in Asia.” She goes on to say that “A little tofu such as the three little cubes you’d typically find in your miso soup at a Japanese restaurant would also be okay” and that she “wouldn’t even worry about the occasional ingestion of Tofurky, Veat, Boca burger or any other of the highly processed, high tech modern American soy foods.”
She falls into the camp that sees fermented soy as superior than un-fermented soy for several reasons, which does seem to have some merit.
On the other end of the spectrum is registered dietitian Ginny Messina, who runs TheVeganRD.com and is married to one of the leading experts on soy. In her article “Healthy Vegan Diets Can Include Meat Analogs,” she agrees that “a wagon-load of veggie meats doesn’t make for optimal eating,” but questions, “does that mean that no one should ever have these foods?” She claims that the notion that the unhealthiest vegans eat processed foods and the healthiest ones don’t is based more on a philosophical idea than empirical evidence and points out that vegans are more likely to get sick when they refuse to supplement with B12 and vitamin D or they skimp on calcium and iron–not from eating veggie burgers and pouring a drizzle of olive oil over their salad.” She also points out that olive oil, like tofu in Japan and lime-treated corn tortillas in Mexico, are processed foods that have been around for centuries and “are sometimes associated with improved health and nutrition.” She and her husband have written “Is It Safe to Eat Soy?” which sifts through the science on soy and concludes by saying that it’s okay for just about anyone to eat about 2-3 servings of soy per day, although women with estrogen-receptive breast cancer “may want to be more restrictive in their soy intake” but don’t have to eliminate it completely. Phew, right? Not so fast. In the last paragraph, it says her hubby is a consultant for the soy industry. What does that mean? Hm…
Now let’s turn to two nutrition sources I’ve been referring to for years.
Registered dietitian Jack Norris reported on a 2011 study that was actually the third such study that concluded that early stage breast cancer patients did no worse eating up to 1/2 cup of soy per day than those who didn’t eat soy. In fact, they did a little better.
This falls in line with many of the other studies he highlights in his thoughtful post, “Another Internet Soy Article,” on Veganhealth.org. His results concur with Ginny Messina’s above and imply that “2 to 3 servings of soy is perfectly safe, possibly even protective against disease. A serving of soy is 1/2 cup of tofu, tempeh, soybeans or textured vegetable protein, or 1 cup of soymilk.”
Finally, I turned to trusty Dr. Fuhrman, whose article on soy concludes with, “Soy may not be a super-food (such as broccoli) but the preponderance of evidence does not suggest that eating moderate amounts of unprocessed (edamame or soy beans) or lightly processed (tofu or soy milk) soy creates hypothyroidism or causes cancer. Processed foods, because of their low nutrient levels, high amount of salt, acrylamides and other toxic additives should not be considered healthy. Vegetarians and vegans who eat tofu-turkey, soy burgers, soy ice cream, soy hot dogs, soy cheese and other soy-derived processed foods on a regular basis are certainly not eating a healthy diet. Isolated soy protein is a heavily processed food with a low nutrient-per-calorie ratio. The key to good health is to eat unprocessed foods because their nutrient per calorie density is high.”
Gee. How surprising that our nutritarian friend Dr. Fuhrman would fall into the whole foods camp!
Given the opinions above, it seems to be the case that most can agree that unprocessed or minimally processed soy can be part of a healthy diet, and nobody can argue about the safety of eating moderate amounts of non-GMO, fermented soy (though Fuhrman would frown upon high-sodium tamari or shoyu) or that highly processed soy is okay to indulge in occasionally.
If you’re a newbie veg*n who’s been subsisting off of soysicles, soysages, and every other kind of soy-based meat and dairy alternative, no need to panic. Most of us have been there/done that. These transitional foods can be really useful stepping stones to a healthier, more whole foods-based diet as we wean ourselves off of the animal food-based tastes and textures we grew up with. Thankfully, there are more and more non-soy-based transitional foods coming onto the market every year such as Daiya Cheese and coconut milk-based ice creams, so we have more options now.
When I first went vegan, I ate processed soy every day–soy milk, soy meats, soy cheese, etc. I even had a flirty tank top that said “Soy Sexy,” which I wore for weeks without knowing about the Spanish double meaning, “I am sexy.” Well, well! Now that I know more about soy and have four breast cancer survivors in my family, I get way more excited about an amazing cashew cheese or quinoa burger than their soy-based counterparts, though I do indulge in them occasionally.
Now if only someone would make a “Cashew Sexy” t-shirt. Ooo la la.