To Eat Soy, or Not to Eat Soy? That is the Question

Soy Products
Soy products include tofu, edamame and soy milk.

The word “soy” may cause you to think about tofu or Asian cuisine. Perhaps the word brings up images of veganism and soy milk. Soy is versatile and can be included in your diet in many ways, ranging from eating soy beans (think edamame) to taking soy protein supplements (it could be in your protein shake!). For some people, soy is the symbol for healthy food, rich in health benefits and a great source of plant-based protein and fats. For others, soy may elicit feelings of apprehension and concern based on the media’s widespread reporting on the potential risks of consumption. The real question comes down to whether the benefits outweigh the risks and current research is divided – which means more studies and more time until we get a definitive answer. There is; however, one suggestion that seems to be universally agreed upon: soy should be consumed in moderation.

What is soy?
Soy is a plant from the pea family and has been a staple in Asian diets for thousands of years. It has only more recently been incorporated into American diets. Soy can be enjoyed as a food item when cooked in the form of tofu, edamame or tempeh, and can be consumed as a food additive when cooked until it dissolves into a dish or through soy protein powders and supplements. Soy is a popular product because of its high level of protein (much higher than many other plant-based protein products) and its reported health benefits. Although conflicting studies have emerged about the risks and benefits of soy products, general recommendations encourage people to consume soy in moderation if they choose to add it to their diets. Soy is a good source of protein, but there are many other ways for people to get enough protein – even vegetarians. Quinoa, Greek yogurt and nuts are just a few examples.

What makes soy controversial?
Soy contains a compound called isoflavones, which are phytoestrogens, meaning they are similar to the estrogen your body naturally produces. Because isoflavones are so similar to estrogen, your body’s estrogen receptors can mistake isoflavones for the hormone and use it instead. This can potentially lower your estrogen levels and decrease women’s risk of cancer. In some studies, this has been found to be a good thing for your health; however, some scientists and researchers are warning that negative side effects can occur from consuming too many soy products.
The other concern with soy stems primarily from the processing of the plant. Traditionally, soy was eaten after it had gone through a fermentation process (tofu, tempeh or miso). If you skip fermentation, natural toxins that exist within soy remain inside the plant and are ultimately released into your body. There are many products in the U.S. that contain soy. In fact, you may not realize how many of the products you eat on a regular basis have soy on their ingredient list. Unless manufacturers are using soy in the form of tofu, tempeh or miso, the soy used in their products has not been fermented and still contains the toxins found naturally in the soy bean, and is infused with any additional chemicals used in the production process.

Can soy produce too much estrogen in your body?
Some concern has developed around men having too much estrogen in their body and taking on feminine characteristics, and young girls starting puberty at an early age as a result of increased levels of estrogen. Some doctors have linked this to soy consumptions, but others disagree and say it does not have an influence. There is not enough hard evidence to say that soy increases your body’s estrogen levels. Just like any food, different people have different reactions to soy and if you are concerned that you may be allergic to soy or eating too much, you should talk to a doctor. The rule of thumb should be to eat soy in moderation.

How is soy grown in the U.S.?
According to GMO Compass, 85% of soybeans grown in the US are GMO (genetically modified organisms). The reason soybeans are modified is to enable crops to withstand the spraying of a herbicide containing glyphosate. A new study published in the journal Archives of Toxicology, which originates out of the Medical University of Vienna, shows that there really is no safe level of exposure to glyphosate herbicide formula. In particular, the study illustrates that low levels of glyphosate effect DNA. Previous glyphosate research shows a link to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, imbalanced hormones in children, DNA damage, low testosterone, endocrine disruption, liver cancer, meningitis, infertility, skin cancer and kidney damage.

Does soy prevent or cause cancer?
Many researchers and doctors recommend a diet that includes soy proteins and products as a cancer prevention strategy. However, some current studies show that in excess, there are potential cancer risks associated with soy consumption. Due to the fact that we are not completely sure about the way soy reacts with our bodies, it is recommended we use it in moderation until we know for sure whether soy prevents or contributes to cancer. Also, be advised that if you have or previously had cancer, it may be best to avoid soy products.

What are the health benefits to soy anyways?
Based on studies that compare Asian health statistics and American health statistics, researchers have concluded that soy can lower bad cholesterol levels (LDL), prevent bone loss later in life and potentially help prevent breast and prostate cancer. Older studies did not take into consideration other lifestyle differences between the two cultures aside from their soy intake, so these results are not very reliable. Evidence supporting soy’s ability to decrease the risk of heart disease (lowering LDL) convinced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow soy products to carry a heart healthy label in 1999, and the American Heart Association recommends 25 grams per day. Keep in mind, soy must be combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle to really contribute to your health.

What contains soy?
• Soy Beans (Edamame)
• Tofu
• Tempeh
• Soy Dairy Products (Milk, Yogurt, Cheese, Ice Cream)
• Soy Nut Butter
• Miso Soup
• Soy Pasta
• Soy Flour
• Soy Nuts
• Soy Crisps
• Soy Protein Powders
• Soy Protein can be found in:
• Cereals, Salad Dressing, Soup, Breads and many more.

*Check out labels to see if the food you are eating contains soy. You may be surprised to see how many foods contain soy or soy protein!

The health benefits of soy are now being examined more closely by researchers and more dependable results will be released in the next couple of years. When included in your diet in moderation, soy products seem to be safe and a healthy protein option. Our suggestion: consume soy in moderation, eat fermented soy products when available and stay tuned to this interesting debate!

by Stephanie Waits, MPH Health Educator, SDSU and
Amy Schiller, MSBA, Marketing Coordinator, Aztec Recreation, AS/SDSU


Livestrong. “What are the Dangers of Soy Proteins?”

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Soy.”

Barnard, Neal. Huffington Post. “Settling the Soy Controversy”.

Stanislaus County Health Services Agency. “Soy: The Pros and Cons”.

University of Maryland Medical Center. “Soy”.

Thornton, Jim. Men’s Health. “Is This the Most Dangerous Food for Men?”

GMO Compass. “”

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