Five Years Plus

{May 15, 2010}   Soytistics

I was born in the era where women were encouraged by their doctors to use formula and forget breastfeeding. My mother, with three toddlers underfoot, found bottle-feeding with a milk-based formula convenient and it had the added bonus that my dad could more easily help. As the youngest the program was well-established in our household, but when it was my turn, I developed an allergy to the cow’s milk formula. Soy-based formula was the solution. Eventually the milk allergy resolved itself, but by that time, my love affair with soy had begun.

I learned to cook tofu as a sophomore in college. I would wrap the soft block  in cloth and press out the excess liquid with heavy textbooks before chopping it into cubes and sitting it in a soy sauce marinade. Later, gently sautéed, the warm salty exterior provided a sumptuous contrast to the silky inner. Next I discovered tempe, a fermented soy cake that has a chewy texture. Marinated and sautéed or added to spaghetti sauce it was delicious.

Around age 28 I went through a difficult time and discovered warm soy milk as the ultimate comfort food. It probably reminded me of the soy formula I had been fed by my parents many years before. I even made soy Bailey’s Irish cream, though didn’t hesitate to add that crucial can of sweetened condensed milk to the mix. After moving to America I developed a morning ritual of drinking Earl Grey tea with soy milk and and was thrilled to learn I could order creamy soy milk in my latte. I thought I was doing a good thing for both my body and the planet by regularly eating these soy foods.

I ignored it when a cook at a workshop I was attending in 2001 mentioned that soy milk might not be so good for me. There was no way that I was going to replace my thick creamy soy milk with rice milk, which seemed thin and watery by comparison. I was much happier to receive the inputs from the mainstream press that soy was a health food and its consumption could even help to prevent breast cancer. When I finally learned that eating large amounts of soy based foods can actually create havoc in the body I still didn’t want to believe it. How did I get it so wrong for so long regarding soy?

The answer to that has a lot of parts. A good place to start is the issue of bias. For example, when I was listening to all the good things about soy and filtering out suspicions about this food, I was exhibiting a human trait called confirmation bias. It is human nature to pay more attention to things that agree with opinions we already hold. It sets us up to ignore things that disagree with our positions until the contradictory input is overwhelming.

There was also a bias in the research I was reading in the 1990’s. For example, the conclusion that eating soy might prevent breast cancer was based on a correlation between the Japanese population and a lower incidence of breast cancer. However,  correlation does not equal causality. There are other factors at play like the amounts of fat and alcohol consumed. What’s more, the Japanese eat only small quantities of tofu and little or no soymilk, and most of the soy products in that diet are fermented, such as tempeh, miso and soy sauce. Fermented soy is chemically, enzymatically and metabolically distinct from non-fermented soy products. One important difference is that unfermented soy contains a large quantity of phytic acid, which can block the body’s absorption of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Fermentation reduces this concentration and has other desirable effects.

Soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens which are plant produced substances that can bond to the estrogen receptors in human cells. The hypothesis that soy prevents breast cancer was based on the theory that the phytoestrogens offered protection by preventing human estrogen that encourages cell growth from occupying the receptors. Data from clinical studies doesn’t clearly support this theory and in fact, raises serious concerns that phytoestrogens from soy might accelerate the growth and or proliferation of cancerous tumors in some women. Debate continues and there are differing views on this issue.  Notably the American Cancer Society is no longer recommending consumption of soy.

Research also suggests that excessive soy consumption may disrupt normal thyroid function and some of the compounds in soy are toxic to the thyroid tissue.  There is a good deal of scientific evidence today that soy-based baby formula, although recommended by Dr. Benjamin Spock and others in the 1990’s, can be damaging to newborns.

With everything that is at stake, why hasn’t there been an outcry in the media to correct the misconceptions about soy? While not exactly an outcry, the mainstream media has reported the two sides to the soy question. Perhaps media consumers like simple points that can be turned into sound bites while nuanced discussions and fine distinctions make for poor headlines. It’s also possible that another bias is at work, since the multi-billion dollar soy agribusiness is served better while confusion on this point persists. The industry has been very successful promoting soy products as healthy through multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and intense lobbying of the FDA.

Soy protein is prevalent in many foods, both “health” and mainstream, and in animal feed, in part because of the fact that soy protein is a cheap industrial by-product of the production of soy oil. The hidden cost of making soy mass produced, cheap and plentiful is that over 90% of the soy sold in the United States is genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are touted to increase yields and resistance to pests, and provide better tolerance to environmental variations, all of which reduce costs. Monsanto introduced Round-up Ready Soybeans in 1996, which are genetically modified to tolerate the broad-spectrum herbicide Round-up (the number one seller in the world since 1980). Round-up kills just about everything in the soil it is applied to except the plants genetically modified to resist it. There are numerous scientific studies showing this herbicide’s toxicity, disruption of endocrine function and links to gene damage in humans.

So what is a health conscious soy lover like me to do? Decide for yourself. You can follow the links in this article to read research and opinions on soy and make up your own mind about whether, what kinds and how much soy is healthy for you. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Consider using soy products in moderation or eliminate them from the diet entirely. For example, serve a soy based appetizer like miso soup instead of serving tofu as a main dish.
  2. Use fermented soy products from a certified organic or other high-quality non-GMO source.
  3. Read labels to cut down on the unintended consumption of soy.
  4. Substitute soymilk with rice milk, almond milk or coconut water, all of which are available in the health food store. I make my own almond milk by soaking ½ cup almonds for 4 to 6 hours, sliding the skins off and blending at high speed with 3 cups of water. Strain through a muslin bag if desired. If straining, the almonds do not need to be peeled.
  5. Vote with your wallet. If we educate ourselves and buy accordingly, business will be forced to respond.

Jim says:

excellent summary of the soy problem. I too have largely given it up except for miso and non-GMO soy sauce. I can suggest one addtional substitute for soy milk which you did not mention: Hazelnut milk, made by Pacific. It is thicker than rice milk and a delicious alternative to almond milk, which gets boring after a while. PS i do not have the patience to make my own almond milk, but salute those who do.

Ann says:

Very interesting article on soy. I learned a lot I’d never had the slightest clue about before.
I remember that you were allergic to the baby formula, how interesting that you were switched over to soy milk in the 60ies!
Keep up the interesting articles, look forward to my weekly education 🙂

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