That is the question many health experts are asking about this hugely popular protein.
So why has soy become so popular?
Once considered a small-scale food in the US soy sales have exploded! From 1992 to 2011 sales have grown from 300 million to over 5.2 billion, according to the Soyfoods Association of North America. But this change was no accident, it was the result of a massive investment in advertising by the soy industry that's been wildly successful! According to Kaayla Daniel, PhD, a certified clinical nutritionist and author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, the FDA pushed the health benefits of soy despite massive evidence to the contrary — and against the protests of its top scientists. “Soy is a multi-billion-dollar U.S. industry that’s taken these health claims to the bank,” she says.
The different types of Soy
There are two types of soy products on the market, fermented soy and un-fermented soy. For centuries many cultures have been consuming fermented soy products such as natto, tempeh and soy sauce and have been enjoying health benefits. Fermented soy differs from un-fermented and processed soy as it under goes a long fermentation process that rids the anti-nutrient properties. Un-fermented soy is what we widely see on our shelves today like soymilk, soy protein and tofu.
By contrast, most of the soy consumed in the United States is un-fermented and processed as well as genetically modified. Over 90% of the soy crops in the US have been genetically modified to naturally defend insect infestation. For the most part, says clinical nutritionist Ed Bauman, MEd, PhD, founder and president of Bauman College, eating foods in their most pure and unadulterated state is a good thing. Soybeans in and of themselves are not all bad, he says, but the processing of soybeans is another issue.
Haas says that soy is one of the foods most likely to cause allergic and other reactions, including digestive upset. And while most people equate food allergies with anaphylaxis or another severe immune response, it is possible to have a sub-clinical reaction, which can morph into a host of health problems over time.
For reasons scientists cannot fully explain, in fact, food allergies are on the rise, especially in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food allergies in children increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. The top eight food allergens — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat — account for more than 90 percent of those food allergies and sensitivities.
Over-consumption is the main issue, basically the more we consume certain foods, the more our immune systems are put on alert and we become overly sensitive to them. And, says Bauman, genetically modified (GM) foods can be even more problematic.
“People can develop sensitivity to a food that has antigens or bacteria not originally in the food chain, as is the case with GM foods.”
As a general rule of thumb, Haas counsels people to eliminate soy from their diets if it is a concern. “As with any potential allergen,” says Haas, “take a break from it and see if you feel better; then try it again and see if it produces any ill effects.”
Soy and Hormones
Even if you are not allergic to soy, Daniel cautions, you might do well to minimize consumption of highly processed soy-based foods.
“The bottom line is that soybeans naturally contain plant estrogen's, toxins and anti-nutrients, and you can’t completely remove those.”
Naturally occurring components found in soybeans are called “anti-nutrients” because they basically block absorption of minerals and inhibit enzyme production needed for digestion. That’s one reason why they can cause stomach pain and bloating in some people. Goitrogens, in particular, interfere with iodine metabolism and, as a result, inhibit thyroid function.
Soy also contains plant-based estrogen's called isoflavones. Studies on the effects of isoflavones on human estrogen levels are conflicting, and experts say it’s possible that they affect people differently. Some studies show that isoflavones can mimic the body’s own estrogens, which can cause symptoms such as weight gain and headaches in women. Studies show that soy’s isoflavones may also have the potential to promote hormone-sensitive cancers in some people.
Soy also affects men and has been shown to lower testosterone levels and sex drive, according to both Haas and Daniel.
The highest risk of adverse exposure is for infants who drink soy-based formula. “It’s the only thing they’re eating, they’re very small, and they’re at a key stage developmentally,” says Daniel.
“The estrogen's in soy can affect the hormonal development of these children, adversely affecting their growing brains, reproductive systems and thyroids.”
Soy formula also contains large amounts of manganese, which has been linked to attention deficit disorder and neurotoxicity in infants.
How to avoid being negatively affected by soy
“My experience as a clinical nutritionist,” Daniel says, “is that people who have a varied diet tend not to get into trouble.”
Haas stresses that most people fare best when they consume fermented forms of soy. If it’s not fermented, the bean must be processed with solvents or chemicals to make it palatable, although the extent does vary. Soy milk and tofu are no longer considered whole foods, for example, since they have been separated from the bean. And these products are less processed than soybean oil or those ubiquitous soy proteins, such as soy protein isolate, hydrolyzed soy protein and textured vegetable protein (TVP), which are found in many processed and packaged foods.
The moral of the story is we need to be cautious of processed and genetically modified soy products. If you are consuming soy milk or soy protein look into making a switch to almond or coconut milk and switch to proteins like our Pure Vegan Pea Protein. Just like everything in life moderation is key!