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The Great Soy Debate
Processed foods have long been criticized for the amount of sugar, salt, artificial flavorings, and preservatives they contain, as well as their lack of beneficial nutrients compared to fresh, natural alternatives.
Until recently, few have worried about an additional item found in many processed foods - soy. From soy-based oils, to lecithin, to textured protein, soy has found its way into nearly every manufactured food in the supermarket, including cookies, candies, pastries, pastas, cereal, and ice cream. Should we be concerned about the increasing number of soy-based products in our diet?
History of Soy
Asian societies have been consuming soy for thousands of years in the form of miso, tofu, tempeh, and natto. These products are all processed from raw soybeans either by fermenting or from precipitated soaked beans. This processing is required to remove a number of unpleasant components found in raw soybeans, some of which are toxic to humans.
These traditional soy products were relatively unknown outside of Asia until the 1970s and 80s, when tofu, in particular, gained popularity as a healthy protein source and meat substitute. In recent years, though, tofu sales have been falling as consumers have shifted their interest to soy-based meat alternatives made with textured vegetable protein and energy bars and snacks.
Even though the use of soy additives and soy-based products has exploded in recent decades, humans only consume a miniscule proportion of annual worldwide soy production; 98% of soy meal is used for animal feed.
Recently, a number of accusations have been leveled against soy – a product many of us have long regarded as a healthy, high-protein food. Some of the claims are as follows:
- Soy protein is poorly absorbed. Despite the high-level of natural proteins found in soy, trypsin inhibitors still present after processing actually block protein absorption.
- Soy minerals are poorly absorbed. Phytates, found in soy products that are not-fermented, block the uptake of essential minerals in the intestinal tract, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Unfermented soy products include soy milk, soy infant formulae, soy protein powders and soy meat alternatives, such as soy sausages and veggie burgers made from hydrolyzed soy powder.
- Soy products are toxic. Nitrosamines, a carcinogen, along with aluminum and other toxins are often found in highly-processed soy products. Soy contains phytoestrogens that disrupt the endocrine system
Many of the loud voices spreading these arguments have come from members of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), a US non-profit organization dedicated to “restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” The Foundation promotes the consumption of unprocessed foods, including raw (unpasteurized) milk. Since its founding more than 10 years ago, WAPF has been waging a war against soy, publishing online articles such as “Soy Alert - Tragedy and Hype,” calling for a ban on infant soy formulas, and even suing the State of Illinois for serving prisoners meals with soy as a substitute-meat. Kaayla Daniel, a member of WAPF’s board of directors, authored the book 'The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food' in 2005.
Critics of WAPF claim the foundation is biased and has been misleading consumers by citing examples of sensationalist findings that take existing research out of context. For example, some of the research used to state their case comes from studies performed on rats and other animals, which have highly different nutrient requirements and reactions compared to humans. Other arguments focus on trace amounts of toxins and anti-nutrients present in soy that are harmful when consumed in extremely high concentrations. The truth is many healthy foods contain substances which are harmful in unrealistically large amounts, including celery (psoralens), broccoli (goitrogens), peanuts and peanut butter (aflatoxins), and mushrooms (hydrazines). Laboratory research that looks large amounts of these substances tested in isolation cannot be applied to humans consuming actual foods in realistic quantities.
The Bottom Line
There’s no doubt that highly-processed foods are less nutritious than their freshly-prepared counterparts – soy included. If your diet is high in processed soy-based products like soy burgers, hot dogs, chili, or other packaged and processed soy foods, consider replacing some of them with a more natural soy source, such as tempeh or edamame.
What are your thoughts on soy-based food products?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through South America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online with Facebook and their blog.