So, What's All The Fuss About Soy?
It's wonderful that more people are trying to reduce their meat and dairy consumption. I'm not vegan (a huge plant eater, but not vegan). I'm not a meat eater. I'm not a meat-eater hater. I'm not of the opinion that meat and fish are unhealthy (if we consume small portions of high quality, grass fed meats and sustainable, low mercury fish and seafood, such as bivalves—my favorite). Mostly, I'm NOT an advocate of processed food—including so called "health" food. In society's commendable effort to eat a healthier diet, many so called healthy fake foods have come onto the market. For example, PETA has a LONG list of dozens of their favorite dairy, butter, beef, chicken, pork, fish, and seafood substitutes all made in a factory, not in your kitchen. See full list here.
I appreciate PETA's great work for animal welfare, I'm just not a fan of their fake food choices. When I stopped eating meat cold turkey (pun intended) in 2007 to prepare for my yoga teacher training by being a vegetarian for one full year before my month intensive was scheduled to begin, I needed a lot of soy and gluten fake meat products to get me through the first months. I didn't know how to cook "vegetarian" food back then, so I still relied on a piece of something meaty on my plate to feel full. I eventually grew to dislike these fake foods and stopped consuming them entirely. I don't care if it's in the health food store, I don't recommend them. I even kind of cringe at them. If you've ever wondered why your Whole Foods bill is so high, it may be that your cart is full of these expensive fake food products and not fresh food.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! A BASIC LOOK AT THE CONTROVERSY
To start, since soy is one of the more common food allergies, it’s a good idea to be sure you're not allergic and do an elimination test to find out if you’re soy sensitive (differs from allergic). According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, "researchers are still not completely certain which component of soy causes the reactions, but so far 15 allergenic proteins have been found in soy… Soy has become one of the most frequent and common food additives in the modern diet, so avoiding soy can be very difficult for families. Not all soy products cause reactions. Some fermented soy foods are less allergenic than raw beans. Soybean oil (which does not contain protein) may not cause symptoms. It all depends on you and your personal allergies.” Okay, so we know the importance of soy allergy/sensitivity testing.
IF SOY IS CLEARED FOR YOU . . .
The next step is to understand the heated argument over soy and if soy is still something you want to include in your diet. In a world laden with Frankenfood soy products, it’s important to select only non-GMO, organic whole food soy. Soy can be a very cheap source of protein and today's agricultural practices are atrocious (bye bye beloved Rainforest!), so low quality soy is being farmed to feed livestock. Even if we don't eat that soy, if we eat that animal, we know where that cheap soy ends up...in our belly!
I grew up eating soy foods (to distinguish from soy 'products') in my bi-cultural Asian/American home. However, we consumed whole food "real" soy foods, such as edamame (the whole soybean), miso, tofu, soy sprouts, and tempeh. My mother grew up on a large estate in Korea consuming only organic produce from her family's land. I doubt we ate that kind of quality when I was a child in California, but it was always whole food soy—not Tofurkey.
Soy milk, soy yogurt, soy ice cream, soy oil, soy flour, vegan soy fake meats and cheeses, as well as soy crackers and junk foods are NOT the health foods that many people have been mislead to believe they are. These products—even their organic non-GMO varieties, are highly processed to mimic yogurt, meat, cheese, etc.—even soy milk, which is often made with soy flour and water, sweeteners, and other unwelcome things such as carrageenan (also found in nut milks by the way!).
(If you really love soy milk and simply can’t fall in love with all the other less processed plant milks, give Martha Stewart’s recipe a go, but it’s more labor intensive than homemade almond milk and keep in mind that when we drink our food, it’s really easy to consume large amounts of that food. I prefer coconut milk, brown rice milk, and oat milk when I need a neutral tasting and slightly thick milk similar to cow milk. I also make an awesome hemp seed milk for special days! My recipe here.)
TAKING SOY SIDES . . .
The PRO-SOY side touts the health claims: low calorie, complete source of protein, helps reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk, and has anti-cancer isoflavones. Vegans looking for meat and dairy alternatives often turn to soy food-like products hoping to fill the protein and nutrition gap.
The ANTI-SOY group, however, claim that there is enough evidence to support that soy can be detrimental to one’s health—that its estrogen-like compounds, when consumed in large amounts, can actually interfere with our endocrine system and cause hormonal imbalance, causing serious issues with women’s health, premature puberty, and even male breast development.
The MIDDLE LINE opinion is that soy’s estrogen-like compounds are not sufficiently potent enough to cause real disruptions in our endocrine system, although certain high-risk populations—such as women with breast cancer—may want to avoid soy altogether. Eating whole soy foods such as edamame, or especially fermented soy like miso, is how we reap any of soy’s nutritional benefits, including protein, fiber, and probiotics in the fermented soy foods (such as miso, tempeh, and tamari). Apart from these foods, once soy has been processed into soy products, their nutritional value is greatly diminished. Read the labels of so called “health" foods such as vegan protein bars, vegan mayonnaise, margarine, vegan meats and cheeses, and vegan yogurt, milk, and ice cream for a processed form of soy to become aware of hidden soy. Or, even better, strictly limit foods with ingredients lists and buy whole foods instead.
WHY FERMENTED SOY? PHYTIC ACID AND BIOAVAILABILITY . . .
Soy, like many other legumes, grains, and nuts, contains phytic acid, which can also inhibit mineral absorption. Many experts advocate soaking and sprouting phytic acid foods to help break down this compound, but soy needs to be fermented to neutralize its high content of phytic acid, which is why organic non-GMO miso and tempeh are the only soy foods I really recommend eating—in limited to moderate amounts depending on the individual’s soy sensitivity and overall dietary balancing needs. Although I grew up eating and still do eat (organic) tofu, it’s perhaps no more than one to two servings per month and then many weeks without it.
As a fermented soy food, miso and tempeh have natural probiotics. We can take probiotics daily (and I do), but since every culture in the world has a tradition of fermenting foods, we can also borrow from various world cuisines to invite richness and variety into our kitchens—and our guts! Long before refrigeration, humans fermented foods to prolong their shelf life, creating foods rich in live bacteria that replenish our gut bacteria—crucial to good health. An imbalance of bacteria in our gut not only causes intestinal discomfort and handicap our immune system, it can also inhibit nutrient absorption, so all those beautiful nutrient rich foods we eat may not end up well absorbed.
Our ancestors understood the importance of fermented foods to our health. And now after some twenty years of intensive research on the role of intestinal bacteria in the immune system, science can confirm and expand upon our ancestral knowledge. The biggest concentration of immune cells are found in the intestine. Experts vary a little on the exact number, but it's said that 60 - 70% of our immune system is in our gut, and more research is being conducted to advance our understanding about the gut’s link to many major auto-immune diseases, as well as nervous and emotional disorders. Published in 1999, Dr. Michael Gershon’s book The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine is a fascinating read by a pioneer in the field!
If you want an easy recipe to include skin-beautifying, gut-loving miso into your diet, give my Miso Ginger Broth with Soba Noodles a go!
I hope this basic summary of this issue helps you to form your own opinion. Always keep in mind that the road to wise eating is paved with research and experience. Arming yourself with as much knowledge about food and agricultural practices—and then testing foods for yourself—is the key to modern eating in a world of increasing food intolerances and auto-immune syndromes.
Ask your doctor questions about how your food may be affecting your health or medical condition. If he/she doesn’t know, I hope you can a Functional Medicine doctor who understands medicine and understands that food is also medicine. Years ago, my doctor cured my longtime, chronic, extremely severe perennial allergies and seasonal hay fever with a comprehensive food test, an elimination diet, infusions of missing key nutrients, and miraculous probiotics! Within a few weeks, I no longer needed my corticosteroid spray and steroid eye drops. I just take my probiotics now and my skin changed remarkably without all those daily prescription drugs! How much happier am I now!
To your health and happiness! xx, Juli