Soy: A Controversial Bean

soy is the second largest monocrop grown in the U.S.

Last week, I wrote an article on soy that caused a ruckus. It was originally published on Civil Eats and was then picked up by the Huffington Post. The health benefits or detriments of soy is a controversial issue and people are  passionate about their views on both sides of the spectrum.

As a food writer and nutrition columnist for Civil Eats, my goal is to work towards fostering critical thought on sustainable agriculture and its corollaries: food, health, and nutrition. I don’t claim to have definitive answers on any one issue, food, or idea; but I do intend to open up the discussion and present views that may be less well-know or controversial and have merit.

In response to those who were critical of my piece: it is certainly true that there are studies to support the claim that soy can in fact be healthy and beneficial. There are also many studies that prove the opposite, as I noted in my piece. There is no shortage of contradictions on the health value or dangers of soy. In just one abstract from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the contradictions abound. The authors first say, “Isoflavones possess nonhormonal properties that are associated with the inhibition of cancer cell growth.” But then go on to say, “Some data from in vitro and animal studies suggest that isoflavones, especially genistein, the aglycone of the main soybean isoflavone genistin, may stimulate the growth of estrogen-sensitive tumors.”

After reviewing many studies like these and researching soy over the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that the possible health benefits of soy do not outweigh the potential risks. Further, what really alarms me is the increasing amount of soy that slips its way into the American diet via processed foods — it’s important to realize just how much soy we are consuming without intending to. The authors of the same study address that here, “Because the use of soyfoods and isoflavone supplements is increasing, it is important from a public health perspective to understand the impact of these products on breast cancer risk in women at high risk of the disease and on the survival of breast cancer patients.” Again, I choose to err on the side of caution.

Another factor to be aware of is that most commercial soy is processed with hexane — a known neurotoxin that has dangerous side effects; the EPA has nearly an entire page listing the health hazards associated with it. Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining and is a hazardous air pollutant. Soybean processors use it as a solvent since it is a cheap and efficient way of extracting oil from soybeans (always check food labels for soybean oil and avoid it — in addition, peanut, corn, and other seed oils are often processed with hexane). During processing, whole soybeans are bathed in hexane, which separates the soybeans’ oil from protein. Hexane is not a food and we don't want to be eating it.  Clearly, the dangers of processing soy with hexane is one part of the soy story that is not up for debate.

It is true that some people tolerate unprocessed, fermented, organic soy very well and it may even be healthful for them. But the purpose of the piece I wrote for Civil Eats was to inform the general public on the possible negative effects associated with soy — especially highly processed soy and soy ingredients — since the mainstream media as well as the FDA and USDA portray it only as a health food. The American people deserve to have all the information they need to make their own decisions. My soy article is part of a larger effort to bring to light crucial health and nutrition information that is too often left out due to the special interests of big business and industrial agriculture.