There was a loud applause when alternative dairy foods like soy yogurt, milk, ice cream, cream cheese, etc. were introduced to the market.  Lactose intolerant people could once again enjoy the rich creaminess of dairy – without the stomach cramps or bloating. Soy also became the go-to food for vegetarians and vegans, as they made this versatile Asian pea their star protein in soy “fake” meats, tofu and tempeh.  But soy is not just for vegetarian and lactose intolerant eaters.  In fact, the soybean has found its way into everyone’s diet in one way or another – as oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, TSP, TVP, and soy isolates – all widely used in processed foods.

The soybean has been valued for thousands of years as one of the most important crops. Originating in Asia, it is now cultivated throughout the world, and is praised for slowing osteoporosis, relieving side effects of menopause and many forms of cancer, lowering LDL cholesterol and easing complications from diabetes.  All these wonderful effects give credit to the rich supply of isoflavones found in the soybean. Isoflavones are a type of plant estrogen and powerful antioxidants. The chemical structure of isoflavones is very similar to human estrogen. Because of this similarity in structure, they are able to decrease or increase our supply of this hormone.  Soy is also a great source of iron, B vitamins, carotene and niacin.

And so, if soy is so good, why is it so controversial?

As with many other healthy products, food scientists have found a way to manipulate the soybean in such ways that make it incredibly resourceful, changing it into the products mentioned above, as well as animal feed, plastics and clothing.  And the processes by which soy is transformed into these modern products is far from healthy.  For example, a variety of chemical and alcohol solutions are used to eliminate all the carbohydrates from the soybean when making soy protein isolate (SPI),  which is the key ingredient in most soy foods that imitate meat and dairy products, including baby formulas and some brands of soy milk. During this process, nitrates, which are potent carcinogens, are formed and numerous artificial flavorings, like MSG, are added to mask the strong “beany” taste of soy (to read more, visit http://www.mercola.com/article/soy/avoid_soy.htm).

 To top it off, a recent study concluded that 93% of soy is genetically engineered, and there is MUCH debate on the health consequences of consuming GE products, and in such large quantities as we do today (corn, sugar beets, papaya and soon to be approved salmon are other sources of GE food), not to mention the environmental effects. To avoid GE soy, you must purchase organic products or products with a manufacturer’s statement that it uses no GMOs (genetically modified organisiams).  To learn more see blog entry on GE foods  http://appetitesforlife.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/is-my-dinner-genetically-modified/).

So soy is GE modified, and modern soy products are subjected to harsh chemical and unnatural processes to produce our soy oils and additives that are present in almost any processed food. But, in my opinion, the main problem with soy is that it is everywhere! And as I have learned in my studies, too much of anything is a bad thing.  All the benefits of a product are lost when it is manipulated and consumed in ways that are unnatural, and overconsumed. Traditionally, the soybean was eaten as fermented products like tempeh, natto, miso and soy sauce. In this form, soy is healthiest and easiest to digest, as the soybean itself is very difficult to digest.

The most popular way today to consume soy is as milk or yogurt.  Based on my research, soy in this form is still nutritional and useful for aiding diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, anemia, etc. However, as cautioned above, too much of anything is not good, and if you regularly consume these products, buying organic is crucial to avoid GE soy. Keep in mind as well that soymilk and soy yogurts and cheeses are highly processed, and therefore contain fillers and sugars. There are plenty of other non-dairy “milks” on the market now, like almond, coconut, rice, hazelnut, oat, etc. Try alternating your soy products with these to avoid overexposure to any one thing.

So, is soy good? In my humble opinion, soy is one of those things that should be eaten in moderation, and overly processed soy products even less. Don’t use it as your main or only source of protein, but explore all the other vegetarian proteins out there, especially nuts, seeds, vegetables and greens. But if you do eat soy products, be sure to buy organic.

That’s all folks.