To Soy or Not To Soy

Soy is all the rage in vegan diets, and without Americans even realizing, it has become a staple in the American diet in general. In fact, the United States is the top producer of soy products in the world – beating out China, Japan, and other Asian countries. In addition to “soy” choices in cheese, non-meat proteins, and milk, soybean oil has crept into our crackers, cookies, and many other shelf items at our grocery stores.

Those who eat it regularly tout its health properties. After all, soybeans are chock-full of protein, iron, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Once only available in health food or natural food stores, we as Americans can now obtain a variety of soy sources at our local grocer. So what is soy?

Soy is derived from the soybean – a member of the legume family. In short, a soybean is just another bean in the family with your lima beans, kidney beans, and the like. Soy products can be broken down into two categories: unfermented (soy milk, tofu, and edamame) and fermented (miso, naturally brewed soy sauce, and timpeh). For vegans and vegetarians, soy has become a primary source of protein since it is derived from a plant versus an animal, and can be found in a plethora of options, from cheese to burgers and even milk and ice cream. But is soy really that good for you?

Recent studies and debates are pointing towards “no”. While soy does have a handful of minerals and nutrients, soy also contains high amounts of estrogen-like chemicals known as isoflavones. Specific effects of these isoflavones are still unknown, and hence the primary target of research and studies. Those opposed to soy say studies are beginning to indicate a link to cancer when animals or humans consume large amounts of unfermented soy (such as soy milk and tofu). However, most still suggest that fermented soy (such as naturally brewed soy sauce) can have a positive effect on health when eaten in moderation, as the fermenting process neutralizes the alleged harmful isoflavones. These studies are still very new and controversial, and those who have been consuming soy for years still sing its praises.

Whether for or against soy, the bottom line is this: soy is just another bean, and when eaten in moderation, is just another source of protein and minerals in one’s diet. However, anything eaten in excess can be harmful. Some scientists and doctors suggest that a safe, “moderate” amount of soy is about 11grams per day, or the equivalent of about 1 cup of soymilk or a quarter block of tofu. Others suggest that three or so servings of soy a week is the recommended “moderate” amount. Personally, I am leaning towards the latter, and link it to recommendations for consuming other sources of protein, such as fish or red meat (which are also recommended to be consumed only 2-3 times per week).

At the end of the day, the take-away is that we cannot rely on any one food to provide nutrition in our diets, and there is no “miracle” food in and of itself. Variety is key to your diet, as each food plays its role in providing the nutrients we need, and often times, foods work together hand-in-hand to complete that nutrition, complementing each other’s nutrients and aiding absorption by the body. While soy is available in a variety of sources and may feel like the “healthy alternative” when choosing cheese and burgers and ice cream, we need to remember that those food are also processed, and anything processed is not the best option for our bodies.

To soy or not to soy? Moderation – that’s the key.

By Laura