Everyone I meet either has an opinion about soy or feels confused by it. You’re probably thinking, “You ate raw TEMPEH? Isn’t that SOY?! Isn’t soy BAD for you?!” or “Oh gawd I hate tofu, isn’t it just a fad?” or you might be wondering — and correctly so — “Aren’t most people allergic to this dreaded stuff?” and “Isn’t it filled with GMOs?”
Whether you wouldn’t touch soy products with a 10-foot pole or if it’s a part of your daily diet, soy is highly controversial.
Forty years ago, soy was blossoming in the American consciousness as the cure-all superfood from East Asia. When I first got wind, I went rushing off in hot pursuit to find this new food. I was in my very early days of embracing a new macrobiotic lifestyle and meatless diet, and I committed to exploring any discoveries to their depths. So, when I found tempeh in a mid-Manhattan health food store, I purchased it and proceeded to eat it right out of the package walking down Fifth Avenue. Believe me when I say: Don’t try this at home. I survived eating cold, raw tempeh, and can laugh now about my ignorance and impatience, but it was not what I would call a gourmet delight. You must cook tempeh before you consume! Trust me.
To Soy or NOT TO SOY, that is the question!
Decades of debates have raged over whether soy produces certain health benefits. Ever since my not-so-delicious walk down Fifth Avenue, nutritionists and researchers alike have battled with the question: is soy a godsend? Or is it bad for you?
The Good Side of Soy
SOY is a favorite food in many world cultures and is a primary protein source in vegetarian cuisine, keeping vegetarians and vegans feeling fuller, longer.
According to Healthline, soy has significant health potential because of its unique phytochemicals. Researchers have found that eating soy products reduced LDL cholesterol while raising “good” cholesterol, all while helping to maintain a healthy weight. Soy may improve fertility outcomes in women trying to conceive, and — my favorite — soy has been shown to reduce menopause symptoms such as hot flashes! Now we’re talking!
Eating soy is also a great way to promote cardiovascular health, and may even decrease mortality rates in breast cancer patients! Surprising, right?
What’s the Deal with Soy and Cancer?
The jury is out on whether or not soy can help prevent certain cancers. A scare recently swept the nation that claimed that soy might increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, but this is not supported by research. Studies show that fermented soy products may have a protective effect against breast cancer! (But keep in mind, soy supplements or soy ice cream won’t help.)
Also worth mentioning: many men worry about including soy in their diet, in fear that it might negatively impact testosterone. But good news! According to Healthline, in a review of 30 studies, high soy consumption was linked to a significantly lower risk of developing prostate cancer in men. So don’t be afraid to feed your man some (cooked!) tempeh!
Whole Vs. Processed Soy
If you’re one of the brave ones venturing into the wonderful world of soy, beware: there is a difference between natural, processed and fermented soy.
Soy Isolate – otherwise known as PROCESSED SOY – is used ubiquitously in meat fillers, meatless burger patties, protein bars, and powders. This soy is manipulated and does not give us the same benefits as WHOLE soy. I believe this is where people get into trouble with allergies. Soy Isolate is a hidden ingredient in many processed foods. Rule of thumb: eat whole foods. Avoid processed. Rule the world.
The Not-So-Great Side of Soy
Ninety percent of soy produced in the United States is genetically modified, so that’s not great for those of us who are trying to avoid GMOs. Be sure to stick with ORGANICALLY GROWN SOY which has a better nutritional profile and won’t contain traces of glyphosate. Yuck. Soy is also a common food allergy. While it’s usually not serious, put down the soy if you experience tingling, hives, wheezing, abdominal pain, or skin redness! So with all of this new information, soy doesn’t seem quite as scary. Now that we know it won’t murder you in your sleep! I mean look at all those benefits! So how did we end up scratching our heads, wondering whether soy is good, bad, or obsolete?
A History Lesson about Soy: The Debate (And Confusion) Rages On
America notices that East Asians had FEWER instances of breast cancer, prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, and bone fractures than the US. Women reported fewer menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes (lucky ladies!) and BOTH men and women had lower incidences of age-related brain diseases. Could the answer be soy?
Soy becomes pervasive in animal feed, and farmers started noticing that their young farm animals grew hardy and robust when fed a soybean-rich diet. Could the same be true for humans?
By the swinging ’60s, the soybean industry grows in the US, and we are CONVINCED that since 2-billion people in East Asia consume soy every day with no ill-effect for thousands of years, soy must be good for you.
More studies shed light on the use of soy proteins in processed baked goods. Food scientists tinker with soy products, which produce contradicting studies about the potential downfalls and glories of soy. Cue public confusion and soy-panic.
A study suggests that soy could cause the growth of pancreatic cancer cells in animals. People everywhere put down the tofu. But THEN, the National Cancer Institute and various health professionals all had a pow-wow to discuss the relation between soy and cancer. “Soy PREVENTS cancer!” they said. Americans pick back up the tofu.
At the beginning of the decade, the American Dietetic Association was like “Soy protects against breast cancer! Everyone celebrates with tempeh!”
But then in 1996, a pilot study suggested that soy proteins may stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells — cue more confusion.
Here’s the deal: soy isoflavones can mimic estrogen in the body and can bind to estrogen receptors.
So people thought since soy isoflavones are estrogenic, they must be bad for you because estrogen causes breast cancer. We were all hanging out with our big, fabulous nineties hair, vowing never to eat tofu AGAIN, DAMNIT!
We weren’t even THINKING about all those studies that showed that women in Japan and China — who eat soy EVERY DAY — experience lower cancer rates.
The millennium begins, and the soy debate rages on like a ping pong game.
Researchers were busy testing soy’s effect on cancer, and the heart. NO association is found between soy and breast cancer. Soy protein is celebrated for being beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health because it is chock-full of polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
THEN, research wonders whether soy intake may impact thyroid function. Everyone with a sluggish thyroid runs for the hills! I know I did!
Today, we know that soy is a beneficial protein and a healthy fat source. We know that soy provides a complete source of dietary protein, containing all the amino acids our bodies need. And, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, soy can be one of your go-to foods. Just remember — stick with WHOLE soy foods such as tofu, miso, tempeh, and fresh edamame.
So there you have it. After 70 years and counting, we’re still a little confused, but we’re coming around to loving soy, and the research backs us up!
Join in on the soy revolution with one of my favorite tempeh recipes. These Orange Glazed Tempeh Triangles are fantastic with a bowl of rice and steamed bok choy. And it’s sure as hell a far cry from my sad, raw tempeh moment on Fifth Avenue!
Enjoy and Chew Well,