Soy is everywhere and in everything. But is that a good thing?

(Note: This story originally appeared in the Beaufort Gazette in July 2007).

By Will Martin
@wmartin89

Shortly after opening Beaufort‘s Its Only Natural health food in 2000, owner Joyce Tallmadge encountered a would-be prophet. Armed with a medical degree and an imposing body of research, the store patron dropped a bomb.

“‘You mark my words, in a couple years you’re going to hear soy is no good,'” Tallmadge remembers him saying. “He was not for soy at all.”

Nor was his prophecy completely false.

Soy, once enshrined among health gurus as a near-miracle food, faces a growing chorus of voices calling the protein-packed pod into question. The criticism ranges from wait-and-see caution – much of the research on soy is still very young – to the demonization of soy-rich diets as outright toxic.

“Three or four years ago it was ‘eat all the soy you can, it’s good for you,'” said Lisa Eklund, store manager at Its Only Natural. “(And now, it’s) back to ‘don’t eat any soy if you have any fear of cancer.'”

Medical authorities offer consumers little clarity; for every study touting soy’s ability to keep disease at bay, another emerges countering those claims. Most notably, the American Heart Association took the Food and Drug Administration to task for allowing soy foods to bear a heart-healthy label. Recent studies, said the AHA, had shown soy to have little or no effect on reducing factors leading to heart disease, such as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol levels. Down came the grand grocery store banners singing soys praises; up went consumers’ reservations.

“We can’t really recommend anything to people,” Eklund said of the controversy surrounding soy. “We really do try to educate people so they can make their own decisions.”

Soy to the World

About 20 years ago, Christine Gerbstadt was running past the miles of cornfields that saturated the landscape of her rural Pennsylvannia home. Today, she said, all those fields yield harvests of soy.

“It’s huge,” said Gerbstadt, now a physician and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

If soy is embroiled in controversy, manufacturers remain undaunted and consumers seem mostly unaware.

In the past 15 years soy sales in the U.S. climbed from $300 million in 1992 to $4 billion in 2006. Over the past six years, U.S. manufacturers introduced 2,500 new foods with soy as an ingredient, and while the demand for soyfoods might have plateaued – sales increased only 1.6 percent last year – it’s transition from health food niche to dietary mainstay seems concrete.

And it is this perception of soy – as staple, rather than complement – that has dieticians most concerned.

“I feel like everything else in America, we overdo soy,” said Roxanne Davis-Cote, registered dietician at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. “Like anything else, too much is bad. If you eat too many carrots, you’re going to turn orange … If you eat too much lettuce, you’re probably not going to get enough calories from other foods, so you’re going to lose (healthy) weight.”

“I feel like everything else in America, we overdo soy.” – Roxanne Davis Cote, registered dietician

“Soy doesn’t have to be a staple,” said Gerbstadt, echoing Davis-Cote’s concern that regular soy consumers often exceed the ADA’s recommendation of one or two servings a day. “More than a few servings of any one thing and you simply run the risk of not saving enough calories for all your other nutrients.”

Most at risk, said Gerbstadt, are vegans and others who avoid animal proteins. Vegetarianism is doable, she said, but many advocates are “at risk for not having enough variety in their diet.”

Vegetarianism, even veganism, concurs Eklund, is a viable lifestyle, but such devotion is often born more of fashion than information. She points to the rise in the U.S. of “health-food eating disorders” in which well-meaning consumers place certain foods on a pedestal while ostracizing others. A lot of teenage girls, she notes, have gone vegetarian, only to “eat cheese pizza every day.”

“Americans especially, they want the hoopla (associated with faddish foods),” Eklund said. “You don’t want to rely totally on soy.”

Many vegetarians and vegans, said Davis-Cote, do just that. Because soy has gone mainstream, grocery stores now offer a plethora of meat alternatives. But soy doesn’t necessarily equal healthy, she cautioned.

“Smart Turkey, tofu dogs, veggie burgers – they’re all vegan, but they contain significant amounts of salt, so, yeah, they’re not meat, but you’re getting more salt than you would if you were eating meat.”

“Certain body types, certain people do better on a vegan diet, but a lot of people end up giving it up in the end,” Tallmadge added. “Vegan diets are really hard to do.”

Vegans and vegetarians, said Davis-Cote, need to implement more protein-laden beans, nuts and grains into their eating routine. For those open to some limited proteins, egg whites and lean dairy products are sources of complete proteins, also.

“I feel like there’s some ways you can do it (a vegan diet) healthily,” said Davis-Cote. “Like anything else, you need to balance it.”

Wait and see

An internet search for the dangers of soy can leave one concerned – some studies suggest soy’s isoflavones (an estrogen) can lead to thyroid disorders, decreased sperm counts and a greater risk for breast cancer – or simply amused – soy has been purportedly “linked” to increased rates of homosexuality in men.

Beyond scaremongering, however, lies genuine, scientific concern.

Drs. Daniel Dorge and Daniel Sheehan, FDA toxicology experts, openly opposed the administration’s unqualified 1999 claim that soy was good for the heart.

“Isoflavones are like other estrogens in that they are two-edged swords, conferring both benefits and risk,” wrote the two doctors in a public letter of protest. “Estrogenic …drugs are regulated by the FDA. … Patients are informed of risks, and are monitored by their physicians for evidence of toxicity. There are no similar safeguards in place for foods, so the public will be put at potential risk from soy isoflavones.”

Additionally, nearly all of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. In Europe, such “GMO” soy foods must be labeled as such. The U.S. has yet to follow suit, to the delight of soy lobbies. The American Soy Association was frank in applauding the 1999 FDA labeling decision, crediting it for allowing “the United States to win the WTO (World Trade Organization) case against the EU moratorium on the approval of new biotech-enhanced crops.”

Americans, however, would be wise to temper their reaction to such data, said Tallmadge.

“For people to give a case that they want the government to shut down this product or that product; it’s like people want to find an excuse for their own woes because they made a bad decision,” Tallmadge said. “I’m a firm believer in everything in moderation. … You have to learn to read your body.”

Gerbstadt is equally hesitant to attribute many U.S. ailments to soy, realizing the causes are typically complex.

Obesity, for instance, said Gerbstadt, has definitively been shown to lower men’s testosterone levels, while such conclusions regarding soy are scientifically suspect. Also, Asian nations have eaten soy for centuries – six to eight servings a day, said Gerbstadt – and typically suffer lower rates of nearly every sickness supposedly linked to soy.

In short, excluding soy from the American diet seems premature at best.

“We don’t know (the effects of soy) for sure,” said Gerbstadt. “(The ADA’s) message has always been variety and moderation … we’re kind of covering our bases.”

A couple servings each day, she said, can add necessary protein and fiber to one’s diet, but shouldn’t be enough to build up a toxicity if soy is later found to be definitively harmful.

“I don’t think caution is a good word,” said Davis-Cote, voicing skepticism on soy’s harmful potential. “If it’s eaten in moderation I feel like it can be a part of our healthy, our well-balanced diet.”

The scientific widsom of dieticians like Davis-Cote and Gerbstadt sounds more like timeless common sense: fault on the side of moderation, and one has little reason for worry.

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