In Jack and The Beanstalk, a handful of beans sowed great wealth.
Humble soybeans have their own tale of riches — a protein panacea for our bodies. But as the beans’ popularity bloomed, they also sprouted controversy.
Dubbed “meat of the field,” soy’s healthful qualities were at odds with evidence of potential interference with bodily hormonal functions. Many people, including breast-cancer patients, were advised to eschew soy because their estrogenic properties might feed tumor growth. In addition to those concerns, the stunning pervasiveness of soy as an ingredient in many packaged groceries including cupcake sprinkles, energy bars, salad dressings, and chocolate fed a backlash echoing the reaction to corn’s ubiquity in edible goods.
Although soybeans were only considered a food in this country after 1920, soy is everywhere — including popular culture. “There’s no such thing as soy milk. It’s soy juice,” comedian Lewis Black once quipped.
The downside of the legume powerhouse prompted The World’s Healthiest Foods, a nutrition nonprofit, to place soy on its 10 most controversial foods list while, at the same time, extolling its many bodily benefits. (Several beneficial foods are among those 10.)
Metro Detroit health professionals also voice mixed views, with their opinions sometimes as sharply divided as U.S. Congress. Fortunately, doctors and nutritional experts also agree on certain aspects of America’s prolific crop.
Jen Green, a naturopath (N.D.) certified in naturopathic oncology (formerly with Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, but now in private practice) says recent broad-based soy studies have shown the bean to be beneficial for most breast-cancer patients, reducing occurrence and recurrence. A staggering amount of research dollars have been spent on the topic, Green says, and the results are causing some to rethink their initial concern.
“It’s a wonderful example of first being cautious — and we should have been — and then putting evidence into practice,” says Green, who was among practitioners who formerly recommended that breast-cancer patients avoid soy. “Everything we [previously] thought from animal studies turned out to be wrong,” she says.
Based on the results of five studies, Green says she changed her opinion in 2011. She now even encourages mothers to give their preteen daughters a cup of soy milk three to five times a week because it can promote healthy breast tissue, she says.
Dr. David Brownstein, director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield Township, strongly disagrees. “Phytochemicals in soy inhibit thyroid function,” he says, naming just one of his many concerns.
In his book, The Soy Deception, Brownstein writes, “I have found it nearly impossible to balance the thyroid and the rest of the endocrine system in those patients who ingest large amounts of soy in their diet.”
Michael Pollan, the prolific food writer, wrote in his In Defense of Food: “The soybean itself is a notably inauspicious staple food; it contains a whole assortment of ‘anti-nutrients’, compounds that actually block the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals, interfere with the hormonal system, and prevent the body from breaking down the proteins of the soy itself.” Another issue that plagues the remarkably useful bean is one common to commercial food production in general. Most soy, experts say, is genetically modified (GMO) and is one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods today. For that reason, medical and health experts advise consuming only certified organic, non-GMO soy products. That directive eliminates a large swath of foods on the supermarket shelves. An estimated 94 percent of soy grown in this country is genetically modified. Also, practitioners agree, we should not eat so-called “soy junk,” including soy protein isolate, which Brownstein calls “a highly processed, devitalized, and toxic food source that needs to be avoided.”
Brownstein also warns of soy lecithin, which he describes as a waste sludge that remains after soy processing.
Soy proponents point to health in soy-eating Asian countries as an example of the bean’s benefits. It’s important to remember, however, that soy in Asian diets is fermented, which is believed by many to eliminate or reduce the anti-nutrient compounds it contains.
“Keep in mind, Asian diets are not made up of soy milk, Tofurky, and Boca Burgers,” Brownstein says. It’s estimated that half of grocery-store foods contain soy.
With all the disagreement, what’s a health-minded consumer to do?
First, consult your physicians or a nutritionist to see if you have any issues that could be negatively affected by soy. Be sure to include your child’s pediatrician among the doctors you question.
“The safety of infant soy formula is being debated,” says Anne Van Wagoner, a registered dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. “Babies are more likely to be vulnerable because they absorb things better. The health effects won’t appear until years later.”
The presence of GMOs also concerns Van Wagoner.
“There is a position paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2008) about use of soy protein formulas in infant feeding,” Van Wagoner says. “The concerns are: sexual development and reproduction, neuro development, and thyroid function.”
The position paper concluded the only time infants should have soy formula is if they have congenital galactosemia, a genetic disorder. Van Wagoner says there are several other non-soy options for babies.
For adults, there are many common-sense approaches to the soy dilemma.
“I try to eat meat that’s grass-fed,” Brownstein says. The reason: Soy animal feed travels along the food chain. “I don’t drink soy milk or eat soy cheese.”
Green adds a big-picture perspective to such efforts, saying, “We think of health as something we consume. It’s something we create with our lifestyles and habits.
“[That includes] healthy relationships, eating whole foods, taking care of ourselves, finding joy, and doing what gives us pleasure.”
On food labels, soy can also go by:
Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Soy protein isolate
Consume fermented soy (in moderate amounts), which includes tempeh, miso, natto, and fermented soy sauce (shoyu or tamari).
Eat only USDA organic soy.
Some experts say organic tofu, which is not fermented, is also fine.
Ingest what’s called soy junk food, such as soy protein isolate (found in many energy bars and protein powders).
Consume genetically modified (GMO) soy.
Feed your baby soy infant formula.
Detroit’s Soy Connection
In the early 1940s, Henry Ford experimented with making plastic car parts. The resulting “soybean car” was borne of his effort to combine industry with agriculture. There was also a shortage of metal at the time. Ford’s soybean car weighed 1,000 pounds less than a steel vehicle. Today, soy still has many manufacturing applications.