Soy: is there any ingredient quite so controversial? The headlines it makes are divisive, passionate, conflicting, and downright confusing. One expert recommends it emphatically; the next calls it the worst thing you could possible eat. They can’t both be right…right?!
I can’t, in 800 words or less, give you a full run-down on all things soy, but I can tell you one thing: there is a big difference between traditional soy foods and more processed soy derivatives that are now so pervasive in our food chain. There are people who do believe that soy should never be consumed in any form, but there is little argument to be made that watching out for the latter, more processed soy would go a long way in mitigating the health concerns they raise. So let’s start there.
Traditional soy foods have been consumed for centuries in parts of the world, and can be either fermented (tempeh, miso, soy sauce) or not (tofu, whole soybeans, soy nuts, full-fat soy flour). These products are minimally processed and generally contain soy in its whole form. Cultures with traditionally higher intakes of soy also tend to have lower rates of breast and prostate cancer, heart disease, bone fractures, menopausal symptoms, and age-related brain diseases. (Important: that doesn’t mean soy is definitely the reason for these health benefits.)
However, traditional soy is not the source of most of our soy intake these days, and especially not in societies whose traditional cuisines did not include soy until recently. Rather than eating whole, minimally processed and sometimes fermented soy, we are consuming highly processed soy in the form of isolates, isoflavones, lecithin, concentrates, and so on and so forth. These forms of soy are troublesome for a number of reasons:
1. They are much more likely to come from GMO seeds, which really is another post entirely. Long story short: it has some pretty serious implications, if not for our own health, than at the very least for the health of the planet. Grumble if you will; I stand by that statement.
2. The method of extracting these isolated and processed forms of soy uses hexane, which comes with its own baggage.
3. Soybean oil specifically (and “vegetable oil,” which is almost always made of soy) is rich in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which are pro-inflammatory when over-consumed. Spoiler alert: we over-consume them.
4. Individual compounds behave very different when extracted or isolated than they do when packaged naturally with other compounds in the form of a whole food, and not in a good way. Which leads me to the last point…
5. Processed soy is, quite simply, a red flag indication of an overall processed product. The same way that a baked potato is a more nutritious choice than French fries, so too is a serving of seared tofu more nutritious than a soy burger or protein bar. Period.
Lately, I have noticed how preoccupied we have gotten with specific nutrients. We get hyper-focused on one antioxidant, ingredient, or compound, stripping it of context and losing sight of the bigger picture. Instead of looking at our diets and food system as a whole, we slice and dice them into pieces and suddenly, they have lost all sense of meaning.
Take soy protein isolate for example. It has been used for a while in products like meat analogs (fancy talk for those vegetarian burgers, chicken patties, turkey, and the like), but these days, you can find it in just about anything. Why? Research has associated eating whole, traditional soy protein with health benefits, so we have tried to pull the protein out of the soy and place it in the foods we already eat. (We also have a bit of an obsession with protein right now, and soy protein isolate is cheap.) However, jamming some extra isolated soy protein into a low-fiber, sweetened cereal, for example, does not a health food make.
We do this a lot with our diets: instead of eating fish, want to take fish oil pills; instead of eating a diet rich in fiber, we want to mix a sawdust-like powder into our water; instead of eating our vegetables, we want to buy pastas, wraps, and chips that mix corn or white flour with only enough vegetable puree to color them green or red.
The hard truth is that there are no short cuts when it comes to nutrition. It takes time, effort, and persistence. That also means, though, that it’s less complicated than we make it out to be. Forget the package claims and headlines for a second and ask yourself this: does the food you’re eating (and its ingredient list) look like it came from nature or a factory? Make sure the answer is nature more times than not. Everything else is just noise