Is it Safe to Eat Soy?

Even if you don’t choose to avoid or eliminate animal products from your diet, soy foods may still find their way into your every day nutrition.  Tofu, soymilk, miso and tempeh are all building blocks of some Asian cuisine and I’m sure almost everyone has heard of Tofurkey or some other kind of meat substitute.  There are also some excellent alternatives for sour cream, cheese and butter that are made from soybeans.  But how safe is soy really?  

Soybeans contain a component called isoflavones which are a kind of phytoestrogen or plant estrogen.  They bind to the hormone estrogen receptors in our body, but this does not mean that they are the same as human estrogen.  Phytoestrogens fall under the umbrella category of Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMS).  In practical terms this means that, depending on the tissue, phytoestrogens can either have the same effect as estrogen, the opposite effect of estrogen or no effect at all.  Some drugs that treat cancer and osteoporosis are modelled after SERMS.  Those rumours that eating too much soy will suppress testosterone and give males feminine characteristics are just that: rumours.  An analytical study done in 2010 showed that neither soy foods or isoflavones affected testosterone levels (J. M. Hamilton-Reeves, et al, “Clinical Studies Show No Effects of Soy Protein or Isoflavones on Reproductive Hormones in Men: Results of a Meta-analysis”). With about 2000 studies conducted on soy foods per year, there have been numerous other studies that have supported these findings.

That doesn’t meant that these isoflavones get off scot-free!  The way that they are metabolized can vary significantly between people and this could impact their health.  One type of isoflavone is broken down by a certain intestinal bacteria that is only found in 25% of Caucasians compared to roughly 50% in Asians.  However, one study found that those people inclined to eat more of a vegetarian or vegan diet naturally possessed more of these bacteria.  Neato.

Soy foods are lot in saturated fat, so using them in place of meat or dairy can lower your cholesterol levels by a few points.  Some soy foods improve bone density, but some don’t show any benefit: it all depends on the particular isoflavone.  However, most soy foods are rich in protein and fortified with calcium so they contribute to good bone health.  Goiters can become an issue for people who do not consume enough iodine because many foods including soy foods contain goitrogens.  These goitrogens can interfere with thyroid function causing enlargement and, thus, a goiter.  

At this point in time there is not enough evidence against eating soy foods, and far too many studies supporting the benefits of soy foods that those not eating animal products and those of a carnivorous inclination ought to consider adding soy foods into their menu.  The only downside I have encountered so far is that most prepared tofu-meats have gluten in them…shoot.

Want to try a fun gluten-free, vegan mac and cheese recipe?

I recommend using corn pasta because it adds to the colouring of those expecting orange cheese.


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