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The War on Soy: Why the 'Miracle Food' May Be a Health Risk and Environmental Nightmare

Vegetarians aren't the only ones who should be concerned; there's soy in just about everything you eat these days -- including hamburgers, mac 'n cheese and salad dressing.

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It's not that all soy is bad; in fact, eating it in small doses can be quite healthy, if it's fermented. But when it's not, that's where the problems begin. Soy is a legume, which contains high amounts of phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to minerals (like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc), interfering with the body's ability to absorb them (which is usually a bad thing). Soy is also known to contain "antinutrients," among them enzyme inhibitors that interfere with protein digestion. The Chinese figured out about 2,000 years ago that antinutrients and phytic acid could be deactivated during fermentation, but in the processed-food laden land of the West, we've chosen cultural ignorance in favor of quick and cheap. Most of the soy we eat is unfermented.

Another issue with soy is its high amounts of isoflavones, which can be good and bad (hence the double-edged sword). Isoflavones are a powerful antioxidant, writes Robyn O'Brien in her book, that can help boost immunity. They also impact estrogen levels and have been shown to have positive effects on easing symptoms of menopause. "But that plus can also be a minus," writes O'Brien, "because isoflavones' very ability to boost estrogen production can also pose hazards to our health. For example, the FDA scientists point out, during pregnancy, isoflavones could boost estrogen levels even higher, 'which could be a risk factor for abnormal brain and reproductive tract development.'" There is also a risk of breast and other reproductive cancers for women and the potential for testicular cancer and infertility in men.

While there was much news about the American Heart Association endorsing soy in 2000, there was little attention given when the AHA changed its mind and quietly withdrew its pro-soy claims in 2006, O'Brien points out. She also learned that they were not the only ones who expressed concerned about soy. A study in the British medical journal Lancet in 1996 warned of the effects of soy in infant formula. The study found babies had levels of isoflavones that were five to 10 times higher than women taking soy supplements for menopause. The effects in girls could be early-onset puberty, obesity, breast and reproductive cancers. Boys could face testicular cancer, undescended testicles and infertility. Additionally, O'Brien says, a 2003 British study conducted by Gideon Lack of St. Mary's Hospital at Imperial College London followed 14,000 children from the womb through age 6 and found that kids who had been given soy formula as infants seemed almost three times as likely to develop a peanut allergy later on.

As if all this weren't disturbing enough, there's also another reason to be alarmed -- most of the soy we eat is genetically modified to withstand increasing doses of weed-killing herbicides, and really, we have no idea what the long-term affects of that might be. So, what's a person to do? Stay away from soy as much as possible, which also means avoiding processed foods. And, even if we choose not to eat those things, some of us may end up getting them anyway. "There are different sales channels that these companies are using to sell soy with little regard for the cost to people down the road," said O'Brien. "Soy that is not used in grocery stores, in restaurants, or consumed by livestock, is disposed of in school lunch programs, hospitals, and prisons."

One organization, the Weston A. Price Foundation, is actually engaged in a lawsuit on behalf of Illinois state prisoners who say they're eating a diet made of largely soy protein. "In their letters, the prisoners have described deliberate indifference to a myriad of serious health problems caused by the large amounts of soy in the diet," the WAP Foundation writes. "Complaints include chronic and painful constipation alternating with debilitating diarrhea, vomiting after eating, sharp pains in the digestive tract after consuming soy, passing out after soy-based meals, heart palpitations, rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks, depression and symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as low body temperature (feeling cold all the time), brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, frequent infections and an enlarged thyroid gland."

 
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