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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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These days, you can get soy versions of just about any meat -- from hot dogs to buffalo wings. If you're lactose-intolerant you can still enjoy soy ice-cream and soy milk on your cereal. If you're out for a hike and need a quick boost of energy, you can nibble on soy candy bars.

Soy is a lucrative industry. According to Soyfoods Association of North America, from 1992 to 2008, sales of soy foods have increased from $300 million to $4 billion. From sales numbers to medical endorsements, it would seem that soy has reached a kind of miracle food status.

In 2000 the American Heart Association gave soy the thumbs up and the FDA proclaimed: "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease." Over the course of the last decade medical professionals have touted its benefits in fighting not just cardiovascular disease, but cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.

But soy's glory days may be coming to an end. New research is questioning its health benefits and even pointing out some potential risks. Although definitive evidence may be many years down the road, the American Heart Association has quietly withdrawn its support. And some groups are waging an all-out war, warning that soy can lead to certain kinds of cancers, lowered testosterone levels, and early-onset puberty in girls.

Most of the soy eaten today is also genetically modified, which may pose another set of health risks. The environmental implications of soy production, including massive deforestation, increased use of pesticides and threats to water and soil, are providing more fodder for soy's detractors.

All of this has many people wondering if they should even be eating it at all. And you are most likely eating it. Even if you're not a vegetarian or an avid tofu fan, there is a good chance you're still eating soy. Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, explains that soy is now an ingredient in three-quarters of processed food on the market and just about everything you'd find in a fast food restaurant. It's used as filler in hamburgers, as vegetable oil and an emulsifier. It's in salad dressing, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets.

"Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products," wrote Mary Vance for Terrain Magazine. "It hides in tofu dogs under aliases such as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and lecithin--which is troubling, since the processing required to hydrolyze soy protein into vegetable protein produces excitotoxins such as glutamate (think MSG) and aspartate (a component of aspartame), which cause brain-cell death."

Health Risks or Rewards?

"I grew up in Houston on po' boys and the Wall Street Journal," said Robyn O'Brien. "I trusted our food system." But all that changed when one of her kids developed a food allergy and O'Brien began doing research to find out what's actually in our food and the companies behind it.

Her work led to the book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, and she's become an incredible crusader on multiple fronts when it comes to food. She's also been educating consumers about soy's double-edged sword.

To understand why, it helps to know a little history about soy. It's been cultivated, starting in China, for 3,000 years. While Asian diets have generally included soy it has been in small amounts eaten fermented -- primarily via miso, natto and tempeh. "Fermenting soy creates health-promoting probiotics, the good bacteria our bodies need to maintain digestive and overall wellness,"   wrote Vance. "By contrast, in the United States, processed soy food snacks or shakes can contain over 20 grams of nonfermented soy protein in one serving."

 
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