By: Heather Efaw, Clinical Nutritionist, Director of Nutrition Coaching, Rejuv Medical Southwest

Do you know what Food Month April is?

Hint…this item has become very popular lately as an alternative to dairy.

April is National Soy Month!

Do you really know what ‘soy’ is or where it comes from?

The word soy can be traced back to Japan in the year 1679; ‘Du.Soya (Japanese Soyu – Saio) which means “sauce for fish” used in much of the preparation of dishes in Japan at that time. References to ‘soybean oil’ appeared later in the Dutch language around 1690-1700. Over time it has become a worldwide product used in almost every culture.

Traditionally, soy products are made from fermented soybeans which come from a type of legume with origins in East Asia. Thanks to technology and modern farming skills it can now be grown around the world and is used in most countries in one way, shape or form.  There is a great variation when it comes to how soybeans are processed and soy products are produced.

This has led to much debate about the safety of soy products and/or the quality. Soy is promoted as a “healthy” food item, and maybe an alternative protein source to meat and dairy, however, due to the lack of control of what is being produced (disturbed), great caution needs to be taken if you choose to eat soy.

Typical products made from soybeans include soy milk, tofu, soy sauce, fermented bean paste, natto, and tempeh. As previously stated, due to the non-uniform production standards of soy products it can be hard to determine if the product is healthy or not!  How do you know what you are really buying and eating is safe or of good quality?

Here are a few basic guidelines when buying soy products:

  • Look to preferentially buy fermented soy products only – examples are tempeh (paste or oil) and natto (sticky web of fermented soybeans)
  • Keep your consumption of soy products to only one per day.
  • Edamame (immature soy beans in the pod) tend to be nutritionally sound and are not usually overly processed. (Just be sure to check the food label to see what else may have been added to flavor the edamame or to extend their shelf life!)
  • Read the label and make sure the soy is GMO-Free (Genetically Modified Organism – Free) and organic to help insure the product is more natural and not over processed or synthetically produced.
  • Products that use soy derivatives as fillers are most likely not good sources of soy. Again, the soy needs to be as whole form as possibly, better yet fermented, in order to be beneficial and healthy!

The health benefits promoted regarding soy:

  • Research has shown that when soybeans/soy products are non-GMO, organically grown, fermented but not over processed or synthesized (in their most natural state with limited additives), they can be a rich source of fatty acids, fiber, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B, calcium and plant proteins.
  • Soy products tend to be higher in fiber and calcium then other dairy options (and can be a good alternative for individuals who have a dairy allergy), but there remains some uncertainty about the long term use or over consumption of soy on individuals’ health.

With this nutritional punch, soy has been shown to have positive effects on health:

  • Lowers individuals’ total cholesterol by decreasing the total level of cholesterol in the blood stream when consumed in low to moderate amounts.1
  • It is a good alternative source for calcium. Remember, calcium in dairy milk comes from the plants that cows eat, it is not magically produced by the cow. So eating the plants containing calcium, may be a much healthier alternative as we’ll explain in future articles.
  •  Soy milk is lower in total calories and sugar then dairy milk, and a good source of protein, which is beneficial for diabetics and individuals trying to lose weight.
  • Has been shown to lower risk of breast cancer – “by eating low to moderate levels of soy isoflavones (1/2 cup of soymilk was used in the study) it decreased risk by 25%”2
  • Good alternative to cow’s milk for individuals with food allergies. Soy milk does not cause an inflammatory response (allergies/asthma/gastrointestinal distress from lactose – the sugar found naturally in cow’s milk) according to The College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology’.3

The health concerns and controversy regarding soy products however remain:

  • The processing of soy, as well as most food substances, is not scrutinized as closely as in other industries, such as pharmaceuticals. Therefore soy products can be highly variable. This means that all nutrients might not be beneficial or of high quality. That being known, it is hard to state that the health benefits listed above will be experienced by individuals who consume soy.
  • Soy is used as a by-product or filler in many food items just like dairy is used as filler (or at least the whey/casein protein), and you are likely already consuming much more than you know.
  • There is an increasing amount of research showing over-consumption of soy, particularly the type used as fillers and “fake food” products, can lead to health problems. Translation – Go immediately to your refrigerator and pantry and check labels of items you already have at home to know what you are really eating.
  • Soy can interact with several mediations – monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), which are a class of older antidepressants; antibiotics; estrogen; Tamoxifen (or Nolvadex); and Coumadin (warfarin), a blood-thinning medication. If you are on or going to be taking one of these medications, you need to check all medications and talk to your doctor(s) before adding soy into your diet.
  • Several individuals also show that they are allergic or sensitive to soy. A simple blood test can be performed to determine if you might have a soy allergy.

So, what is our stance on soy and whether to consume or not? A lot of work needs to go into answering that question and must include some research on your part:

  • This includes research to see how much you are maybe already unknowingly eating – remember it is hidden in a lot of food currently.
  • Take the time to find healthy quality sources – check to see if it is fermented, GMO-free, what additives have been added, etc.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you have any history of thyroid problems, cancer, or cardiac history.
  • Be sure to get allergy tested to see if you have a food allergy or food sensitivity to soy.
  • Read food/drug interactions for any medications that you are currently taking to know if it could interact with your medication.

Remember – food is the fuel for your body – keep it clean.

Keep it happy and live your life to the fullest.

References:

  1. Soy foods Association of North America. (April 2014). Myth Busters/Newsroom. Retrieved on April 17, 2014 from http://www.soyfoods.org
  2. Nechuta SJ, Caan BJ, Chen WY, et al. Soy food intake after diagnosis of breast cancer and survival: an in depth analysis of combined evidence from cohort studies of US and Chinese
  3. The College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Soy Allergy. Retrieved on April 17, 2014 from http://acaal.org/allergist/allergies/Types/food-allergies/types/Pages/soy-allergy.aspx.
  4. Women. Am J Clin Nutr 2012; 96:123-32.Retrieved on April 17, 2014 from www.soyfoods.org/
  5. Mayo Clinic Online. (November 01, 2013). Soy (Glycine max). Retrieved on April 23, 2014 from www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/soy/safety/hrb-20060012

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