Depending on who you listen to, soy is either an amazing superfood, or it’s going to increase your risk of cancer. It is that divisive. So what is the problem with soy? And should you really be eating it?
What is soy?
Soybeans look like peas, only bigger, and are members of the legume family of vegetables.
What are the dangers of soy?
Soybeans contain hormone-like substances called phytoestrogens. These are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants, but given the right conditions, they can copy the action of the female hormone oestrogen. However, they are about 1,000 times less powerful than oestrogen. While there needs to be much more research, there is a legitimate worry that consuming too much of the wrong type of soy can be damaging to your endocrine system, which regulates your hormones.
Another worry with soy is that it contains goitrogens, which can interfere with iodine metabolism and thyroid function.
Finally, there are concerns around its concentration of ‘anti-nutrients’ such as saponins, phytates, and trypsin inhibitors, which can interfere with the absorption of other essential nutrients.
Is consuming soy ever ok?
Not all soy products are created equal. The type of soy product and the way it has been prepared are extremely important when it comes the impact on your health.
You need to look out for non-GMO, organic, fermented soy products.
Why? Fermentation has been shown to reduce the level of phytoestrogens in soy by as much as a third.
- Forget tofu – it may be the best-known soy product, but it is not fermented and can be quite processed. Try tempeh – it is made from fermented soybeans. It is firmer and chewier than tofu, and contains more protein. It has a nutty, slightly sweet flavour which is perfect for stir-frys, baking, steaming or grilling. It even makes a delicious meat-ball alternative! It also absorbs the flavour of whatever it is cooked with, making it just as versatile as tofu.
- Forget soy sauce, try tamari – this made from fermented soy and does not contain the additives and preservatives that you find in commercial soy sauce.
- Forget Cup-A-Soup – try miso! This is a traditional Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans which is a complete source of protein. It’s a thick and salty paste that can be used for sauces, spreads (instead of Vegemite), glazes and can be made into a soup. While it may have a high sodium content, recent research has shown that miso does not appear to affect our cardiovascular system in the way that other high-sodium foods sometimes can. It’s also a great source of iron, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and polyunsaturated fats, which lower ‘bad’ cholesterol. Miso’s health benefits don’t stop there. The fermentation process required to make miso results in increased lactobacilli, which facilitates the absorption of nutrients while promoting a healthy pH in the digestive system.
- Forget soy baby formula – try a low-reactive formula like goat’s milk. There are concerns that we don’t know enough about the impact of soy on children’s development. It’s best to go back to basics when it comes to kids. Some children may not be able to tolerate the protein in cow’s milk, but goat’s milk may be easier to digest.
- Want to try something new? Give natto a go – this is another fermented soybean product which packs a protein punch at 18g per 100g. It looks similar to kidney beans and is a Japanese favourite at breakfast time, eaten with sushi rice or in a maki roll. It is a bit harder to find, but try your local Asian grocer.
What about soy milk?
For many of my clients who are lactose-intolerant, soy milk has become a part of their daily life, particularly in their morning coffee.
In my opinion, unfermented soy should be avoided or at least limited in your diet, particularly because there needs to be more research done into its effects. If you are going to drink soy milk, ensure that it is a fermented product. However, I would recommend making your own almond milk as a great alternative. It’s surprisingly easy, quick and cost effective!
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