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How Healthy Is Soy?

By Rachel Segal
 Getty Images: Scott Olson
*Updated 2022
Revered by some and dismissed by others, soy has taken center stage in the American diet. Besides the usual tofu, soy milk, edamame, miso and tempeh, soy has also become an alternative to milk-based infant formulas and has even been added to hamburger patties and other foods offered in school lunches. It is also part of the increasingly popular fad of plant-based meat hitting supermarkets and restaurant menus. While offering vegans and vegetarians plentiful alternatives to meat and dairy, soy-based food and their nutritional benefits have come under scrutiny.  Some studies promote soy as a miracle bean, while others warn that it can be a health hazard with negative side effects for our bodies and the environment. So, is soy-based food as healthy as we think?
Here are three arguments suggesting that you should reconsider how much soy you eat, and three more suggesting it should remain at the top of your shopping list.


Stick With Soy


King of the legumes

Soybeans really pack a protein punch, especially compared to other legumes: One serving (half a cup) of soybeans contains 14.3 grams of protein, compared to black beans (7.6 grams), lima beans (7.4), chickpeas (7.3), kidneys (7.7), lentils (9), among others. Non-meat eaters have higher protein requirements because plant proteins are not as easily or thoroughly digested or processed by the body as animal proteins. So, for vegetarians and vegans (but also for carnivores), soybeans aren’t just a great alternative to meat but to other legumes as well. Plus, research has shown that substituting animal protein with 50 grams of soy protein daily can lower cholesterol levels by 12%. In fact, soy protein is said to lower triglycerides, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and boost HDL (good) cholesterol. Plus, soybeans are the only legume to provide sufficient quantities of the essential omega-3 fatty acid.


Aids in digestion and mood

While vegans have long enjoyed soy, it is also a gift for the 30-50 million lactose-intolerant Americans; soy milk can serve as a healthy alternative to cow’s milk (similar to soy-based infant formula) as it doesn’t contain lactose and contains 7 grams of protein in one cup, which is much higher than other milk alternatives. As soy milk comes from plants, it naturally does not contain cholesterol and is low in saturated fat. Plus, fortified soy milk has as much as 299 mg of calcium per cup, which accounts for 23% of the daily value. It can also be fortified with vitamin D, for bone health. What’s more, soybeans also contain carbs called fructooligosaccharides, which nourish our bodies’ supportive intestinal bacteria, important for digestion. In addition, since soybeans have an extremely low glycemic index, they are slow to trigger our bodies’ insulin response. This ensures more stable blood sugar, which means fewer mood swings.


People in the East have been consuming unprocessed soy for generations

While soy-based foods are relatively new to North American (and European) consumers, a combined two billion people throughout Japan, Korea, China and southeast Asia have been eating soybeans every day for thousands of years – and appear to be benefiting from it. This is partially attributed to the fact that in the Asian diet, soybeans are usually consumed as whole foods; whether roasted, cooked, sprouted or fermented, soybeans have historically remained intact in their natural form over generations of Asian culinary traditions. In contrast, in Western diets, soy-based food is highly processed, meaning soybeans are rarely used in their whole form, thus their nutrients are stripped from them.

So, to get the most out of your soy-based food, stick to soy that is not processed and therefore has higher nutritional benefits. Next time you’re at the supermarket, check food labels that say “whole soy” or “whole bean” among their ingredients.

Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be


Genetically modified soybeans

When it comes to maintaining a healthy diet, moderation of what we consume is usually the answer.  However, it may not be so straightforward when it comes to eating or drinking soy-based foods. This is because almost all American soybeans (estimates are at more than 90%) are genetically modified as opposed to natural.

America’s soybeans have been genetically altered through cell-invasion technology to resist toxic pesticides. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with Monsanto’s genetically modified seed that enables soybean plants to grow after being sprayed with the company’s RoundUp herbicide. After all, if farmers can kill weeds and pests in their soybean acres without harming the plants, this means more efficient and plentiful soybean production. However, over time, weeds have found a way to grow in a chemical environment, which means large-scale farmers need to spray increasingly high levels of RoundUp to keep up with these super-strong weeds. Consequently, consumers are facing increased chemical exposure, given how prevalent GMO soy is in fast food, processed food and animal products.


Potential health implications

In the 1990s, when soy was growing increasingly popular in the US, experts believed that it had the ability to combat health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and various forms of cancer. This is because soybeans contained special plant protein, minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants. However, the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Associationamong thousands more, have since published studies asserting that soy’s supposed benefits to cardiovascular health have since been proven as overreach.

In fact, numerous other studies associate soy with many health risks.  Despite its good nutrients, soy-based products apparently contain too much estrogen-like compounds, called isoflavones. While these natural plant chemicals are found in small amounts in many other legumes, vegetables and grains, soybeans seem to be the most concentrated source of isoflavones in our diets. Some findings suggest that, in Western diets, isoflavenes could promote the growth of some cancer cells, including breast cancer, potentially contribute to fertility problems, including low sperm count, and mess with thyroid function.  Soy also contains phytic acid and oxalic acid, both of which depletes your body of its nutrients and effects mineral absorption.


Bad for environment

The Americas account for 80% of the world’s soybean production. To make room for more soybean fields, international farming companies are de-foresting South America’s Amazon jungle, displacing hundreds of local farmers in the process. In addition to harming the forests, this soybean boom is creating ecological changes that could have potential global impact. Before the ravaging forest fires in the Amazon in recent years have wreaked even more damage, an area the size of France has been leveled in the Amazon. At this rate of deforestation, the Amazon jungle could be largely gone in three-four decades, whether decimated by man, forest fires or replaced by acres and acres of genetically modified soybean fields. The more acres of soybean fields, the more need and use of chemical herbicides to kill weeds, which will also kill much-needed microorganisms that make nutrient-rich soil.  As such, our once-nutrient-rich soil that could nurture enormous jungle trees will soon barely have enough nutrition left in it to grow a small soybean plant.


The Bottom Line: While billions of people the world over consume soy-based food, soybeans have different effects according to how they’re processed and eaten. For some, soy makes life easier and healthier while for others, it may cause dangerous health side effects and symbolizes environmental destruction.  Do you eat soy in your diet?

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