The Great Soy Debate

Since being diagnosed with Candida over two years ago, I’ve made the transition to Soy milk. Regular Cow’s milk caused me to break out in hives and experience unpleasant digestive symptoms, so it seemed the best choice to make. However now I’ve started reading studies and articles about soy products that are making me question if it is the wonder product many of us believe it is.

Fermented vs. Unfermented Soy:

Miso soup - image courtesy of Restaurant Widow
Miso soup may be healthier because the soy is fermented (image via Restaurant Widow)

Many studies have shown that Asians, particularly in Japan and China, have lower rates of breast and prostate cancer than people in the UK and US – with a lot of these crediting their traditional diets that include soy and little or no dairy. However Asian diets include only small amounts of soy; mainly fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh and some tofu.

Fermenting soy creates health-promoting probiotics, the good bacteria we all need to maintain digestive wellness. In contrast, in western countries our sources of soy are more likely to come from processed soy drinks and foods including vegetarian meat substitutes.

Can we really credit these health benefits to soy as a whole – or is it fermented soy that holds the real health properties? There’s no denying that soy beans are largely processed to become the milk substitutes we see in the supermarkets, with the beans hulled, its protein isoflavones separated and often a lot of sugar and other additives added to give it a tasty flavour. While I opt for unsweetened soy milks, these are still largely processed which makes me wonder if they actually contain any of the health properties lauded on the packaging.

The Hormones Debate:

Soy beans and products contain phyto-oestrogens, a natural source of plant oestrogen that studies claim can mimic the body’s own oestrogens, raising a women’s oestrogen levels – helpful for reducing the hot flashes and other symptoms that occur with the menopause, but perhaps not so good for women who already have too much oestrogen like those with endometriosis and other hormone imbalances. It has also been suggested that high soy consumption can lower fertility in males.

On the other hand it is thought that these isoflavones may also help to reduce high oestrogen levels, therefore reducing the risk of breast or uterine cancer before menopause. So how can we know which is true? With a wealth of conflicting research it can be hard to know what to believe. While it may seem a little cynical, a good idea is to look at who is funding the research. All too often, research extolling the benefits of a product is funded by a body who has an interest in the public consuming it – therefore how can we trust that this is unbiased, thorough research?

For now though, I’m going to assume that soy should be avoided by those with high oestrogen levels and hormone imbalances.

An unavoidable allergen

Soy products
Soy is estimated to be in 60% of processed foods (image via energetic nutrition)

Soy is so over processed it now sneaks its way into everything from oil to chocolate to soups under the names textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and lecithin among others. As this humble bean is now one of the most common allergens alongside the likes of shellfish, nuts and its counterpart, dairy, there really is a need to be more aware of the various guises soy can take in processed and packaged foods.  Research suggests that soy is in at least 60% of packaged foods, meaning it’s more difficult than one might expect to avoid it!

Nutrient or Anti-nutrient?

Lentils, beans and pulses are other good sources of vegan protein
Lentils, beans and pulses are other good sources of vegan protein

Soy is said to contain compounds that can help lower cholesterol, and are a good vegetarian source of protein and calcium, but raw mature soya beans contain phytates that prevent mineral absorption and enzyme inhibitors that block the key enzymes we need to digest protein. This is quite worrying considering many vegetarians, vegans and pescetarians (myself included) include soy as a major source of protein in their diets.

Is Organic Soy or Dairy better?

Initially I considered upgrading my regular soy milk to organic soy, but while this is slightly better it still contains the plant oestrogens, toxins and anti-nutrients that could be detrimental to my overall health and wellbeing.

Again, one could consider reintroducing dairy to the diet but the book Skinny Bitch has put paid to me wanting to consume that as my main source of ‘milk’ ever again.

So what about vegans or those women with hormone-related conditions like endometriosis and fibroids that are told to avoid both dairy and soy? There may be other milk alternatives like oat, rice and almond milk on the market but these are not always so readily available and often overpriced, perhaps putting people off trying them.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about with relation to soy and there is still a lot to be learnt. While a lot of the evidence is conflicting, I can see that my diet is very high in soy thanks to my consumption of soy milk, meat substitutes and the occasional packaged products that are packed with soy without us even realising it. I’m going to start by limiting my intake of these foods including cutting out any meat substitutes and starting to find a viable milk substitute that I like to drink in my tea etc.

I’d love to hear what you have to say about this, it’s a bit of a controversial issue with a lot of conflicting and confusing research, and I have to say I’m still unsure of what I’m going to consume instead of soy.

Do you drink soy, dairy or any other milk substitutes and why? Can you recommend any good dairy substitutes?

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