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October 2001 Issue
Is Soy Good -- or Bad -- for Our Health? Yes.
by Michael Fick
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Soybeans are good nutrition, and can be made into food ranging from faux milk to rubber to -- duh! -- beans, some of it actually appetizing. Heck, if adding sugar and fruit and calling it "yogurt" makes sour milk worth eating, think what a nice bean can become in the hands of an industry that makes Twinkies and stands to make billions from selling soy to the world. But as with any good thing, there's such a thing as too much thing. Let's find out from the experts at the Mayo Clinic, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among others, what soy will and won't do for us and to us.

People in Asia, where soybean products are dietary staples, have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than Americans. The Japanese consume up to 55 grams of soy protein per day, whereas Americans eat less than 5 grams per day. (I KNEW we were smarter than those guys, but their situation is food for thought.)

All dried beans are good sources of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Soybeans have the added attraction of plant estrogens (i.e., phytoestrogens), and are a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fiber that helps to prevent diabetes. Soy's primary phytoestrogens are isoflavones, but isoflavones pills alone do not lower cholesterol as well as soy protein with isoflavones. Thus the isoflavone pills may work best if gulped down with -- gulp -- soy milk. So just drink soy milk that contains isoflavones and pretend you're taking the pills; it's cheaper, simpler, and a little less lumpy.

The AHA says they know of only one benefit of soy: eating 25 to 50 grams of soy protein daily can help reduce our "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins, or LDL) by 4 to 8 percent, a little more in people with moderately high cholesterol.

In the "maybe" column, isoflavones may also have some effects that closely resemble the effects of the human estrogen hormone. Mayo Clinic and other studies do not show that soy isoflavones are an effective alternative to estrogen for coronary artery disease, cancer prevention, bone loss, skin, the central nervous system, the endometrium, or hot flashes (exercise and stress reduction work better for that), and the Mayo Clinic says it is premature to consider taking isoflavones instead of estrogen because long-term disease prevention benefits and appropriate dosages of isoflavones remain unknown. Soy advocates note that isoflavone supplements cannot be assumed to have the same effects as dietary soy, and remain unconvinced by the studies that show no menopausal symptom improvement from isoflavones. (Rumor has it that husbands of middle-aged wives are rooting for the soy team.)

Then there are the downside factors. Soybeans contain genistein, a weak estrogen that may help prevent breast cancer -- but which, like isoflavones, causes other cancers in prepubescent mice. Injecting them with genistein at weight-adjusted doses only slightly higher than what infants receive from soybean milk causes uterine cancer in five days. Babies have been fed soy formulas for the past 30 or 40 years with no apparent harm, but is that because soy is really harmless or because no one's looked? Infants on soy formula get the equivalent of 6 to 11 times the dose of isoflavones sufficient to change menstrual patterns in women on soy. In fact, soybean genistein caused a higher rate of cancer than DES, the artificial estrogen that is an established cause of cancer in women. Genistein is contra-indicated in breast cancer patients because it blocks the primary breast cancer medicine. Too much soybean food can inhibit protein and mineral assimilation, cause blood clots in the heart and lungs, block thyroid function, cause kidney stones in susceptible people, and increase our risk for pancreatic damage or cancer. Menstrual or ovarian disorders, endometriosis, and low sperm counts are a few more problems isoflavone supplements could conceivably cause.

The bottom line for me is that I'm tossing out the isoflavone supplements and adding some more whole soy products to my diet. If I had infant children but insufficient mother's milk, I'd continue using soy formula as an adjunct to cow milk formula.

My soy jokes would be even more lame if soy weren't still a joke to most of us. But that's the fault of those moguls I've often railed at in this column, the dreaded food manufacturers. If they would just invent and manufacture some Soy Stuff that tastes, smells, chews, cooks, and goes down like prime rib or Hagen Dazs -- or at least like food in general -- we'd be on it like an NFL defensive line on cheeseburgers.

And that would be a problem -- actually, two problems. First, many food manufacturers would strip all the nutrients out of the soy bean, make junk food out of what's left, "enrich" it with a couple of the 984 nutrients they removed, package and advertise it as the best thing since chocolate malt mother's milk, add vats of sugar and trans-fat, and sell a quarter of an ounce of it at the gas station counter for $2 -- a fat $1.99 profit for big business and a penny for the farmer's thoughts. Second, if they make it as good as a cheeseburger, we'll all eat too many McSoys anyway.

Fortunately, soy is invading the U.S. in a wide and growing variety of healthy forms and flavors. Try adding several of these soy products to your regular diet, but not three meals a day. 25-60 gms a day of soy protein is a rational amount, but remember to cut that amount of meat protein from your diet, since too much protein can cause its own problems.

  • Soybeans. They contain more plant estrogen than prepared soy foods. To soften the dried beans, soak them overnight, then cook them for 2 1/2 hours. Add soybeans to your favorite chili or baked bean recipe, stir-fry or pasta sauce. Steam or lightly saute fresh soybeans.

  • Tempeh and miso. Next to soybeans, these are the soy foods highest in plant estrogens. Cookbooks offer many recipes for them, but don't say how we distinguish miso - a soy paste (yum!) -- from yogurt or carpenter's glue; maybe it's the fruit and sugar in the yogurt or the Home Depot label on the glue. (Maybe the difference is just the label, with the rest being good PR.)

  • Soy milk. Use it just as you would milk -- in a glass, on your cereal, or in recipes. It tastes much like a more robust version of cow milk. Soy "milk" is labeled "soy beverage" and is never displayed in the dairy section; ask where your store keeps it. It's ideal for people who are lactose-intolerant, and a good cooking ingredient since it doesn't curdle when heated. Try it in creamy soup recipes, and try Dr. Gabe Mirkin's tofu salad dressing at Tofu Caesar Salad Dressing. (You can subscribe to his authoritative, informative, and free e-zine by sending a blank e-mail to subscribe@drmirkin.com or visiting www.drmirkin.com.)

  • Soy flour. Substitute soy flour for up to 20 percent of the total flour in baked goods. Replace eggs in baking recipes by substituting 1 tablespoon of soy flour and 2 tablespoons of water for each egg.

  • Tofu. It is sort of a cheese (aka foam rubber) made from soybeans. It has little taste and a spongy (told ya!) texture, so it quickly soaks up and blends with the flavors of the foods around it. Use it in stir-fry dishes, scramble it like an egg, or crumble partially thawed frozen tofu into recipes that call for ground meat. Just use it; there's no need to tell anyone you're using it, and they aren't going to notice it in some dishes if you don't spill the beans. If you get challenged on tofu in, say, your stir-fry, just say it's beef-flavored Jello. You can't lose, because your kids love Jello and your dumb husband loves beef. (Pardon my chauvinistic assumption about the gender of the family cook.) You can pocket the beef money and buy a better wok or hire a younger pool boy. Everybody wins.

  • Soy protein powder. It may not contain a full complement of isoflavones (the label should specify), but it makes a great-tasting and healthy fruit smoothie. Soy powder, fruit, crushed ice, water, and a blender, and you're in business.

  • Textured soy protein. Available in the frozen food section, textured soy protein (TSP) looks like browned meat. Use it to replace ground meat in foods such as tacos, chili, meat loaf, or sloppy Joes. Grille packaged soy burgers with a giant slab of sweet onion, slather on some pesto and/or salsa, add some low-fat soy cheese, and stick it between two slabs of toasted whole wheat raspberry walnut bread. Or just nuke 'em and build a hamburger. These veggie burgers come in a wide variety of flavors and brands.

  • Edamame. This green soy bean, a favorite Japanese snack, is showing up in Asian restaurants and specialty food stores, usually in the frozen food section. Cook them briefly in salted water, strip them out of their pods with your teeth, and enjoy their crispy, nutty flavor. Roasted soy nuts are widely available.

As Richard Simmons might chirp, "Soy: it's what's for dinner."

Incidentally, in researching this I noticed that while the medical sources of soy information presented both sides of soy, most non-medical sources presented only the positive results and unsubstantiated claims. Closer reading revealed that many non-medical web sites relied heavily on funding from - or actually were -- growers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of soy and its products. Wear your hip boots when visiting web sites which have an axe to grind.



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