Post from the Past: Soy-lent Green

Original post date 1/24/09 on


Be warned, it’s another long one… (At the bottom I have listed links to specific health concerns to do with soy.)

When soy came in vogue, it was the new miracle food, a perfect substitute for everything. There are still people who swear by it, but I’ve been hearing a lot of serious-sounding warnings. Once again, Mom spurred me to action by suggesting I do a blog about it.

In her book The 24-Hour Turnaround, Jay Williams, PhD, argues that PR firms have been hired to discredit soy benefits to protect other industries. It’s pretty much fact, in my mind, that Big Dairy, Beef, and Sugar have government food regulations wrapped around their fingers, not to mention Big Pharma. So it’s not a stretch to imagine that they and parties with similar interests would stoop to this level.

The benefits of soy, she says, are great and varied:

  • lower cholesterol
  • strengthen bones
  • protect the heart
  • reduce symptoms of menopause
  • aid digestion as a source of high fiber
  • provide a good protein source

Much of this evidence is taken from studying the health of Eastern Asia, where they don’t suffer from osteoporosis or, apparently, hot flashes.

However, the Weston A. Price foundation, which does not accept funding from the meat or dairy industries, lists some pretty serious concerns regarding the soybean and derived products, like increased risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, and hypothyroidism. (see more on their Web site). According to their research, average consumption of soy foods is only 10-60 grams per day (2-12 teaspoons), and that they only consume fermented soy foods (in the form of tempeh, tamari, etc.), which neutralize naturally-occurring carcinogens.

I find this very frustrating. How can soy be supposed to prevent osteoporisis and cause it, protect against cancer and cause it, increase and decrease mental function, all at once? I mean, if all these studies were true, there wouldn’t be any point to eating soy at all because it would just cancel itself out.

An article by Dr. Virginia Messina and Dr. Mark Messina, “Is It Safe to Eat Soy?” puts this dilemma into perspective:

“But it is a rare situation where every single study on a subject is in agreement. … By picking and choosing individual studies carefully enough, you can prove just about anything you would like about nutrition. Many of the studies that have concluded that soy is unhealthful have used animals as subjects. Drawing conclusions about human health from animal research can be very misleading. For example, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables contain a compound (called indole-3 carbinol) that is an anticarcinogen in humans. But in some other species, it causes cancer.”

This seems to underline the likelihood of soy being villainized for profit. However, we also can’t look to it as a “food savior.” Soy is fast becoming a product as important as wheat and corn, which compromises the industry’s motivations. We’ve all heard horror stories about non-food thickeners being added to soymilk. Check this out:

“Soy formula and soy milk is [sic] often made with soy protein isolate, an extremely refined product lacking virtually all minerals and vitamins. Many soy formulas sold for infants are rich in trypsin-inhibitors which can stunt growth. And all contain staggering amounts of mineral-depleting phytates. The aluminum content of soy formula is 100 times greater than unprocessed milk. Aluminum has a toxic effects on infants kidneys and may be a cause of Alzheimer’s in adults. Soy formula lack [sic] three important nutrients found in all milk: cholesterol, which is essential for brain development, and lactose and galactose, which play vital roles in the development and functioning of the nerves.”

–taken from “How Safe Is Soy” by Susun S. Weed, condensation of an article in NewLife Mag, May ’96, by Sally Fallon, M.A. and Mary Enig, Ph.D.

I’m not sure how much credit I’d give someone who doesn’t even know how to spell her own first name—Susun?—but the aluminum does shed some light on suspicions of links to dementia (see below).

However, she does “condense” what seems like a sound conclusion:

“To summarize: traditional fermented soy products, especially when made with organic beans, are beneficial in the diet when combined with rice, sea foods, and fermented vegetables. The value of other soy products is questionable at best, disease causing at worst. The use of soy as a primary protein source is misguided.”

Dr. Janet Starr Hull of Alternative Health and Nutrition online makes the same point:

Soy itself isn’t the bad guy here; it’s modern humans’ adulteration and misuse of the soybean we need to focus on as an issue of concern. … Do you want to know how to keep your soy healthy? Well, here’s the key – purchase soy products that have been properly fermented and organically grown, and like everything else you eat, consume soy in moderation. (Many Americans tend to “over-do” a good-thing.)

But, she insists, “the wild soybean is a different species from the soy we eat in modern America.”

I highly recommend her article. The conclusion seems to be moderation and intent. If you love soy, in whatever form, don’t overdo it. And consider the form in which soy is consumed in Asia: miso, tempeh, tamari. They aren’t main courses. Trying to make soy the solution to all our health woes is missing the point. There is no quick fix—for anything. The sooner Americans figure that out, the better.

Again, compare soy to wheat and corn. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either one of them; they were meant to be a small part of a varied diet. Both contain fiber in the right form (whole grains and whole kernels, not pretzels and high fructose corn syrup). But because we’ve OD’d on them, so to speak, people are developing gluten allergies and corn is ending up in places it never should have been.

So if you can’t drink cow milk and you can’t drink soymilk, what are you supposed to put on your cereal? I’m beginning to think my grandmother’s idea was right on: orange juice. She said it kept the milk from curdling in her stomach when she mixed it with the orange juice she drank in the morning.


If you love procrastination as much as I do, and reading this is truly preferable to work, laundry, or showering, here’s some further information about various soy claims:

Soy and Thyroid Function

Goitrogens, the compounds that interfere with thyroid function, are also found in cruciferious vegetables. Also, adequate iodine is crucial to the effects of soy on the thyroid. Once again, amounts of soy consumed are key.

Soy and Dementia

Studies are inconclusive. Some seem to show higher rates of dementia in Asian men who consumed more soy, but overall incidence of dementia are drastically lower in Asia than in other parts of the world, seeming to offset any relationship. Causes for dementia are so varied, and still so mysterious, that it’s hard to pin this one on soy.

Soy and Protein

It is generally accepted in Asia that soy is not consumed as a substitute for meat but rather an occasional alternative or even accompaniment. Other sources of information seem to support this.

Soy and Cancer

This seems to be a classic example of using one study (and a study done on animals at that) to create hype and panic. People freak out when you mention cancer, and for good reason. All it takes to hurt soy is a cancer reputation.

Soy and Menopause

“The sterol diosgenin is naturally abundant in plants such as the tropical wild yam and the soybean, and can be converted by the body into the exact molecule as human progesterone.”

But when used in commercial manufacturing of drugs for the purpose of replacing progesterone in the body, “biologically speaking, there are no biochemical pathways in the body for breaking down synthetic diosgenin into progesterone, DHEA, estrogen, testosterone, or the cortisones. The process is miraculously done in the plant itself during fermentation.”

“How to Eat Soy So It Helps”

“The lay press and the soy industry have widely promoted the message that soy phytoestrogens act, in effect, as surrogate estrogens. Such a message gives women the impression that they can use soy to naturally relieve symptoms of falling estrogen levels at menopause. While the research does show that isoflavones behave like estrogens in the body the conclusion that they are all the medicine a woman needs to help her through menopause is not borne out by recent clinical studies on soy and menopausal symptoms.”

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