Description: Soy products come from the small, yellow-gold colored soybean, and in recent years the word “soy” has become associated with health and wellness due to millions of soy industry dollars funding medical research, symposiums, establishing FDA health claims, and influencing the public. Soy derivatives, in the form of soy protein, soy powder, and soybean oil, are showing up in many products sold to healthy food buyers. The truth about soy is not the pretty picture we are led to believe by the industry. The tides are slowly turning, however, and the American Heart Association announced in January of 2006, that it has changed its position on the health benefits of isoflavons in soy, saying that the food has little effect on cholesterol and is unlikely to prevent heart disease.

Soy is a member of the bean family. Like all beans, soybeans contain natural toxins, known as anti-nutrients; however, the anti-nutrients found in soy are particularly resilient and prolific. Some of these anti-nutrients block protein absorption, and others (phytates and trypsin inhibitors) block the uptake of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Long-term use of processed or unfermented soy products may cause serious health problems, including mineral deficiency, stunted growth, thyroid dysfunction, immune system breakdown, kidney and pancreatic disorders, reproductive disorders, and even heart disease and cancer. Unlike many other beans, the anti-nutrients in soybeans cannot be removed through cooking. The solution, known in Asia for millennia, is to ferment the soybean, which deactivates most of the anti-nutrients. Fermented soy products include miso, tempeh, and tamari. Eat miso and wheat-free, organic tamari freely; they can be healthy in the context of a varied diet. Eat tempeh occasionally. In general, tofu is best to eat less often, as it contains less anti-nutrients than mature soybeans, but is not as healthful as fermented soy. In traditional Asian cultures, tofu is consumed with another protein, such as meat or seafood, which offsets the mineral-blocking anti-nutrients in soy. It is also often eaten with seaweed to offset its thyroid damaging effects, and with miso to counteract its B12 disrupting effects. Edamame – the green immature soybean – contains fewer of the toxins found in the mature beans and can be eaten occasionally.

Processed soy products are to be completely avoided. They are unhealthy on numerous counts, and especially dangerous to feed babies (in soy formula) and children. Soy milk, nuts, oil, and processed soy foods such as soy dogs, burgers, cheese, protein powders, and tvp (texturized vegetable protein) should all be completely avoided. Soy protein isolate, a byproduct of what was once considered soy waste, is now found in many processed foods, including popular energy bars. Soy protein isolate contains denatured, unabsorbable proteins, nitrates (potent carcinogens), a toxin called lysinoalanine, and often is combined with artificial flavors such as MSG to mask its unpalatable taste.

All beans contain phytoestrogens, which are trace substances that mimic and supplement the action of the body’s own hormone, estrogen. Soybeans, like all beans and seeds, also contain substances known as phytates and trypsin inhibitors that interfere with our ability to utilize proteins and absorb important nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12. Unlike many other beans, the phytates in soybeans cannot be removed through cooking. The only way to remove these factors and increase mineral availability is through fermentation. Miso, tamari, and tempeh are fermented soy foods. Eat miso and tamari freely; they can be healthy in the context of a varied diet. Eat tempeh occasionally. It is best to eat tofu less often or rarely.

What to look for: 100% organically-grown soy with no genetic modifications, herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Any soy that is not certified organic is most likely GMO- and herbicide-treated, as over two-thirds of all soy grown in North America is grown from genetically-modified seed.

Where to find: Natural food stores and online resources.

Avoid: Soy is never to be used as a staple of diet. It should not be the core substitute for meat & dairy products by vegetarians. When unfermented soy is regularly consumed in a vegetarian diet, the anti-nutritional factors can cause brittle bones, thyroid problems, memory loss, vision impairment, depression and a host of other problems. Particularly avoid soy protein isolates, which are a by-product of the soy oil industry. This unappetizing high-protein slush, left after soy oil is squeezed out of the beans, forms the basis of a $1.6 billion market of imitation foods-from tofu burgers to soymilk. The worst of today’s soy protein products include: textured vegetable protein (TVP), partially hydrogenated soybean oil, texturized plant protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), soy protein isolate, isolated isoflavones, and soy protein concentrate.

Ingredient lists don’t always contain the word soy, but can include words such as lecithin, vegetable oil, vegetable broth, soy flour bouillon, natural flavor or mono-diglycerides that do not necessarily come from soy, but are likely to. These ingredients can be found in everything from shake powders, energy bars, and veggie burgers, to canned tuna.

The worst soy oil products are margarines and shortenings made from partially hydrogenated soybean oil containing dangerous trans-fatty acids. Most of the liquid vegetable oils sold in supermarkets also come from the soybean. These oils are subjected to heavy refining, deodorizing and light hydrogenation.