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Much controversy exists on the topic of soy today. Is it an ancient food or modern menace? Or a bit of both? Beyond the known problems of soy proper, does soy protein bring any additional dangers to the dietary table?
This is important because many food manufacturers stealthily replace part of their meat-based processed foods with soy protein. This reduces costs of production and improves profits considerably. Consumers rarely notice the changes, which makes education about the issue of particular importance.
For example, the beef meatballs and some of the other meat dishes on the Whole Foods hot bar contain this ingredient. Even consumers who don’t eat processed veggie burgers or other meat alternative products are probably eating much more than they realize.
It is of particular importance to root this ingredient OUT of your family’s diet as soy consumption is linked with problems at puberty in children.
What’s more, soya protein powder is a very popular supplement for fitness buffs, so clearly many health-conscious folks view it as healthy.
Let’s start at the beginning.
A Short History of Soy
Soy (also known as soya or edamame), is a semi-traditional legume originally grown in Asia starting around 1100 BC or earlier. Not until they perfected the ability to ferment the bean did it become a part of Asian cuisine.
Its incredibly high protein and fat content along with other attributes make it useful in a number of applications. For instance, on a per acre basis, few if any other crops produce more protein (hemp being one!). Since it is a legume, it enriches the soil, especially with nitrogen, and can play an important part in crop rotations that protect and improve soil health. The oil content has had industrial uses going back hundreds of years (or more!), such as in inks and lubricants.
But soy’s high anti-nutrient content and the poor digestibility of the protein posed significant challenges. Thus it remained a small food stuff mainly used for animal feed. Raw soybeans are toxic to people and most animals.
Soy Protein: Making the Leap to the Dark Side
In the 1940s through the 1960s, as the US food supply rapidly industrialized, soy became a breakout star, especially because of USDA backing driven by challenges of World War II. While already grown in the US for a few hundred years, the rapid shift to industrial meat production, fast-growing Cornish cross chickens, and more made the search for the perfect, low-cost animal protein feed and industrial oil a high priority. Soy met the challenge, soon taking over the United States, which now grows roughly one-third of the entire world’s annual output.
Part of soy’s ascendancy was driven by its success at becoming one of the earliest genetically modified plants put into US agricultural production. But how it is grown isn’t the end of concerns with soy. The majority of the soy harvest is processed via toxic hexane solvent extraction along with industrial processing techniques. (1)
And it no longer is just an industrial or animal feed product. Soy protein and other byproducts of this usually GMO legume are now a staple of the average American’s diet. Most people have no clue how much soy they are really eating.
Soy, Soy EVERYWHERE
Soy’s ascendancy in academia and research, coupled with the heavy government subsidies it enjoys at taxpayer expense, means it is a cheap ingredient for industrial food. Soy oil, soy protein, soy milk, soy protein isolate, and other soy derivatives now lace and grace a wide variety of processed foods that adorn grocery store shelves.
Athletes and other health-conscious people are especially at risk. A wide variety of so-called superfoods, supplements, protein powders and bars contain soy protein. But it isn’t just in foods solely targeted for vegans or vegetarians. All sorts of health foods, including those with real meat, are cut, filled, and extended with soy protein. (2)
A (Sad) Soy Story
You may wonder, is soy really so dangerous? The story of James Price, a retired US army intelligence officer and helicopter pilot, should serve as a dire warning about the dangers of soy in our diets. James Price developed a serious and mysterious health problem. His swollen and painful breasts looked as if they had gumballs implanted underneath.
The slightest touch triggered throbs of pain. For Price, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer who once flew attack helicopters in Vietnam, these changes were more than just physically uncomfortable.
“Men aren’t supposed to have breasts,” he says today in a quiet Texas drawl. “It was like my body was feminizing.”
A lean and wiry man, the breast development, known as gynecomastia or man boobs, stood in stark contrast to the rest of his body. But it was not Price’s only symptom.
His beard growth had slowed, he’d lost hair from his arms, chest, and legs, and he’d stopped waking up with morning erections.
“My sexual desire disappeared,” he says. “Even my emotions changed.”
Soy Adds Excessive Estrogen to the Diet
Tests further revealed that estrogen levels in his bloodstream were eight times higher than the normal limits for men. Healthy women had lower levels! Price’s estrogen was so high, in fact, that the doctors were at a loss to explain it. One physician became so frustrated he eventually accused Price of secretly taking estrogen. After a long period of tests and more tests and more consults and searching and frustration, a doctor finally hit on the cause.
“I said, ‘Let’s go over your diet, meal by meal, and you tell me every single thing you eat and drink.’ He said, ‘Sure, Dr. Lewi. I get up and usually have some cereal.’ I said, ‘Do you put anything on it?’ He said, ‘Soy milk.’”
As it turns out, Price had developed a whopping three-quart per day soy milk habit that put him through hell. (3)
Even at much lower consumption levels, soy and soy products are not safe. And while most people aren’t consuming this much soy, many are getting far more than they realize. This processed, usually GMO soy creates real health risks at even moderate amounts.
As an aside, you have to wonder why the doctor didn’t ask James Price about his diet from the very first visit. A long period of time with tests and more tests without looking at something so simple and obvious first?
Conventional. Medicine. Fail.
Soy Protein a Highly Inferior Meat Substitute
For those who are vegan or vegetarian, soy protein often forms the backbone of many highly processed pseudo-foods that seek to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Another favorite is seitan, made out of concentrated wheat gluten which is just as highly processed and inferior as a protein source.
But even for meat eating folks, don’t assume the stuff on your plate is actually meat. Meat is expensive. Soy is dirt cheap. Consequently, many companies now cut their meat products with soy and soy derivatives to boost profits with little backlash from consumers.
How much fake meat is actually in our meat foods? How about as much as half or even more!
The huge amounts of soy recently found in tests of Subway’s chicken sandwiches and strips made for attention-grabbing headlines. This is but one of many examples.
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP): Soy Protein Disguise
It is safe to assume almost all conventional (and many natural or organic!) prepared meats, lunch meats, and similar foods contain some form of soy protein. These extenders and fillers such as textured vegetable protein (TVP) are common and accepted in the processed food and industrial organic industries. They add volume to meat products and compose, on average, between 2 and 15% of the total product.
Soya extenders and fillers are characteristics of cheap processed meat. They are useful tools in cost reduction enabling the manufacture of lower-cost but still “nutritive” meat products. At least that’s the narrative food companies use! Best to find and patronize quality producers that manufacture products without them.
Substances such as high-protein soy and soy isolate are also used as food binders. The term refers to non-meat ingredients, of animal or plant origin, which have a significantly high level of protein that serves to bind both water and fat. They also help with what’s called “protein network structuring”.
Binders make up approximately 2% of product volume, but unfortunately for consumers, clear definitions of the wide range of these non-meat ingredients are difficult to establish.
Moreover, food labels do not always declare these extenders, binders, and fillers. This food processing black hole can contribute additional toxic agents, additives and processing leftovers. These additional risks such as hexane and aluminum are discussed further below.
Does Soy Protein Contain Hexane Residue?
Hexane residue appears to be a serious problem in soy protein foods. According to the Cornucopia Institute:
One other problem with hexane extraction is that it is not widely known, even among manufacturers sourcing raw ingredients. It is a common processing agent for soy oil, soy meal (fed to livestock) and soy food ingredients, and is an inexpensive tool for high protein extraction. Because it is a processing agent, not an ingredient, companies are not required to disclose to consumers (wholesale or retail) that it was used in the production of their ingredients.
Many companies have responded to consumer pressure by only using soy and soy derivatives that are not hexane extracted. Any soy consumed should ideally come from organic soybeans that are minimally processed without toxic chemicals.
What about Aluminum?
Soy based foods also test high in brain bending aluminum. How high?
Among many other problems, soy based infant formula tests 50x higher for aluminum than breast milk! (4)
Where does all this aluminum come from in soy foods?
Scary truth. Food manufacturers produce soy by acid washing in aluminum tanks. Acid + metal equals leaching, some of which adheres to the soy mixture and ends up in the myriad of soy products.
Soy Protein and Livestock
Because of soy’s abundance – propelled by massive government policies and subsidies provided at taxpayer expense – soy also forms the backbone of almost all animal feeds.This includes commercial pet food. Only a small fraction of cultivated soy is not genetically modified, and an even smaller percentage is organic.
Coming in at the second most planted field crop in the US (corn still is king), a majority of that soy is still used for animal feed, especially CAFO raised chickens and pigs. But it isn’t just those animals. Cows are also a high soy consumer in modern agriculture.
Grassfed Doesn’t Mean Soy Free
Also, realize that just because a label says your beef is “grass-fed” doesn’t mean it is soy free! We found this out the hard way many, many years ago when a local farmer who even had the American grassfed association certification was outed for feeding his cows GM soy meal! His defense? The standards (at least at that time) permitted soy and soy derivatives, because it isn’t a grain.
What good are standards that allow animals to eat highly processed, genetically modified junk foods??? So when you see “grassfed” beef, don’ assume that means soy free. Also, don’t trust customer service or low level store employees to know for sure what the “grass-fed” label means. Ultimately, it is always best to have a personal relationship with the farmers that grow your food. There is simply no substitute!
Removal of COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling) and the growth of imported beef from other countries complicates the issue. Stores have even less of an idea where their meat is coming from and how it is raised. Numerous investigative efforts have revealed that these people rarely have any idea about much of anything related to the products they sell.
Treat all grocery store claims of grassfed beef as guilty until proven innocent.
Identifying Soy Protein on the Label (good luck with that)
All sorts of specialized labeling names disguise the presence of soy from the prying eyes of shoppers. This is similar to the practice of MSG aliases, which food manufacturers deliberately use to confuse consumers.
Textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, vegetable gum or starch and so many others either are soy or may contain soy. Check out a full list of all the various names for soy here.
Some of the most common are:
- Textured soy protein (TSP)
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Soy protein isolate
- Bean (soy) flour
- Bean protein concentrate
- Hydrolyzed soy protein
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Bean curd
Interestingly, of all the dozens of names for soy on the market, nonGMO soy lecithin appears to be one of the least problematic.
With regard to soy protein, however, it is best to avoid it with its many variations. Learn to make and enjoy real foods. Alternatively, find people who make real foods from whole ingredients that are properly prepared that you can buy.
Seriously … Soy??
I want to end this article by reiterating the dangers of soy foods with the exception of traditionally prepared and fermented dishes enjoyed in small amounts like in traditional Asian cuisines. These would include miso, tempeh, natto and traditionally brewed soy sauce.
Soy protein is loaded with plant estrogens known as isoflavones or phytoestrogens. Depending on the circumstances, they compete with or antagonize natural estrogen within an organism for estrogen receptors. The phytoestrogens in soy protein may also interfere with steroid metabolism.
Retha R. Newbold, a supervisory research biologist at the NIEHS, is well aware of these factors. Concerns about the isoflavone genistein’s effects on reproduction and development are due in part to her extensive research in mice. Newbold believes caution is warranted, because her studies, as well as others, have shown that genistein has such effects as inducing uterine cancer in mice and premature puberty in rats. A recent study led by biologist Wendy Jefferson in Newbold’s laboratory and published in the October 2005 issue of Biology of Reproduction linked genistein with effects such as abnormal menstrual cycle, altered ovarian function, and infertility in mice. (5)
Be vigilant! If a food contains soy protein or any of its derivatives using alternative names, don’t buy it even if it is organic. Your children will thank you later.
When will the article on hormone disrupting, human-like estrogen-heavy, cows milk be available on this site? We’re interested in reading that as well. Thanks!
What about “water washed, low process soy” instead of the process you spoke about in the article? Does it change the way our bodies absorb and use the soy? Also, you did not mention a “safe amount” of consumption. What if you do control, to the best extent possible, your intake of low process soy ingredient foods, is there a recommended daily allowance maximum a person should try to keep within?
Sarah Pope MGA
Unfortunately the water washed, low process soy is no better. Stay away … there is no safe amount to consume.
Are edamame and dried edamame bad for you because they are soy beans?
Edamame whether fresh or dried is not a healthfood. It is loaded with plant estrogens. A few on a salad would be fine, but don’t munch handfuls of them as a snack!
Donna in Inwood
I’ll just add that I worked with a holistic nutritionist for 18 months to help get my (severe) migraine headaches under control.
She told me that all of these soy products — like soybean oil, soy milk, soy lecithin and other soy additives — are all very hard for the body to digest. No human being can digest unfermented soy — that’s what she told me. And the processing they use to create these products is no substitute for traditional fermentation. She advised me to avoid all soy products — including traditionally fermented soy foods — and I took her advice. After much trial and error, my headaches are gone. But there are so many reasons to avoid soy, I would say take it out of your family’s diet and see if that helps. Good luck.
I just had a consult with a nutritionist for my 8 year old son. He has mild ASD. We have done the GAPS diet for 3 years but he still has symptoms. She looked at his bloodwork and gave recommendations. She said his thyroid numbers were low and recommended Shaklee soy protein. (she is employed through shaklee. The brand we recently started purchasing supplements through) When I expressed my concern, she said that the bad things with soy are only when the are GMO and not processed right and that Shaklee only uses the highest quality organic, non GMO and processes it right. Her husband and son have taken it for 30 years with no ill effect. What do you think about that?
While nonGMO soy is certainly better than GMO, MOST of the problems with soy still remain. This women is clueless .. find another nutritionist who actually reads the unbiased research. Not only is the soy bad but protein powder is one of the WORST foods on the planet no matter if from soy, whey, pea protein or whatever. It is highly processed, loaded with unlabeled MSG residue and has many other problems besides. A recent study found many brands contaminated with heavy metals too. Rule of thumb … if a so called “food” has to be made in a factory and you couldn’t make it at home, don’t buy it.
I bought an astaxanthin supplement by “asquared nutrition” that lists soybean oil as the carrier. They even state that it is non-gmo. Do you think this miniscule amount would be ok, or should I return it?
A tiny amount of nonGMO soy oil in a supplement is fine.
Judy Barnes Baker
Please help me get the word out that there is a very popular food that is much, much higher in estrogen than soy. It is flax. Flax has hundreds of times more estrogen. The most common side effect of eating it (for women) is hot flashes and bleeding, but it also causes miscarriages and birth defects in the reproductive organs of boy babies. It can lead to early puberty in children and may affect gender identity. It can affect the growth rate of estrogen dependent cancers.
Hormones are signals that tell the body to do something. The wrong kind at the wrong time can have devastating and lasting consequences. Even doctors who prescribe estrogen for those who need it. give it at a carefully controlled dose and always with progestin to prevent cancer.
I thought soy was ok as long as it is whole soy.
Soy is ok if it is fermented and in small amounts. Also, no thyroid issues.
It’s a known fact that lethicin causes inflammation! Which is in all beans and legumes. Also a unknown fact, woman don’t need estrogen! I was just reading an article that stated estrogen is the cause of many female cancers. However they do need progesterone and testosterone and these days with all these chemicals involved with food need to get their Thyroid checked. Many individuals are walking around feel terrible and don’t know why. Most have developed Thyroid Disease which has several affects which also produce hormones along with the adrenals.
EXCELLENT article, thank you.