These days there is a lot of controversy surrounding a little bean known as soy. The countless products made from this bean used to be consumed mainly by vegetarians, but now soy can be found in everything from fake meats to baby formula.
Soy is an inexpensive protein, and it can be processed in a variety of different ways. Some years ago it was being promoted as the perfect food for everyone from children to menopausal women.
While it’s true that soy does have some health benefits, there is also a darker side. Just like with any food, moderation and quality are crucial to the effect on health. I get asked many questions about soy, including: How much soy is safe to eat? and What forms of soy are best?
OVER SATURATION IS NEVER A GOOD THING
It’s not just the soy you think you are eating, say in that tofu or tempeh burger, it is also a cheap ingredient that is in everything from packaged foods to vitamin supplements.
Soy is a profitable crop that farmers get subsidies for growing. When soybean oil is processed it has protein leftover. A small part of this is fed to animals, and the rest is turned into highly processed foods.
It takes a lot of heat, solvents, and pressure to turn a bean into protein powder or fake salami. Processing proteins at high heat changes the chemical structure and turns it into something the body does not recognize or desire.
Soy protein isolate is the most processed form of soy. In addition to high heat and pressure, it is extracted using a toxic solvent called hexane, which is not good for the body. Read those labels as soy protein isolate appears in many energy bars, baby formula, fake meat and cheese, and protein powder.
Lecithin is a beneficial phospholipid (fat) for the brain and cholesterol levels. It is naturally occurring in egg yolks, peanuts, fish, and organ meats. Soy Lecithin is an additive that is extracted from soybean oil and is used as an emulsifier in supplements and food.
Small amounts of soy lecithin can be found in most processed foods and many supplements, so our body gets blasted with way too much. Eventually it can cause an immune reaction as the body looks at it as an invader. This is the underlying cause of many food allergies and inflammation.
Another problem with soy is the fact that it is loaded with phyto-(plant) estrogens. Phytoestrogens are endocrine (hormone) system disruptors because they act as hormones in the body.
Isoflavone is one such compound and can lead to estrogen dominance. This is when the body does not have the right amount of estrogen and little to no progesterone. An imbalance of these hormones causes major cycle issues in women, such as PMS, bloating, long or short cycles, heavy bleeding, and even breast cancer. For men it causes a reduction of testosterone. For children it can mean the early onset of puberty.
Soy creates additional problems for thyroid, as it is goitrogenic. This means that it interferes with the function of the thyroid gland.
When the thyroid can’t produce enough hormones it becomes hypothyroid (low thyroid). Hypothyroidism causes obesity, bloating, high cholesterol, constipation, insomnia, bone loss, fatigue, depression, poor memory, and hair loss.
The phytic acid content of soy is another problem for infants (and adults too). All beans contain phytic acid which inhibits the absorption of essential minerals. Normally, soaking beans reduces the phytic acid, but this is not the case with soy. Even extended soaking periods does not help.
Zinc and iron are greatly reduced, and they are essential for forming a healthy brain and nervous system. Calcium absorption is also impaired, and calcium is crucial for healthy bones. Iodine is also greatly reduced, and this is an essential mineral for the function of the thyroid gland.
Where soy excels is as a fermented food.
Fermentation reduces phytic acid, and makes the nutrients more available for the body. Fermented soy also does not impact estrogen levels or suppress the thyroid.
The most beneficial forms of soy are miso, tamari, tempeh, and natto. Miso is fermented soybean paste. It is most commonly found as a staple in Japan, but can be found in most local health food stores in this country. Miso has been shown to help prevent breast cancer and is full of vitamins, minerals, bacteria, and enzymes. Miso makes a delicious soup, and can be used in sauces and salad dressings.
Natto is a little unusual. It has the texture of a very sticky rice pudding. I can’t say I loved the taste, but the health benefits are undeniable. It is rich in B vitamins along with the bone-friendly vitamin K. It also contains beneficial bacteria and enzymes. One enzyme, nattokinase, reduces and prevents blood clots. This is helpful in preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Due to fermentation, tempeh is a healthier choice than tofu for meatless protein. Tempeh is quite hearty and works well in a range of dishes, and can be grilled, baked, or sautéed. Tamari is essentially fermented soy sauce.
As an ex-vegetarian, I consumed a lot of soy. I also suffered from many of the health issues I have discussed here. My goal is to educate. I had no idea soy was anything less than a perfect food when I was a vegetarian. Since soy is in such a wide variety of foods, this issue has become greater than a concern for vegetarians. So PLEASE READ THOSE LABELS!
Try this recipe that is sure to make any greens taste even more delicious!
tasty miso greens
4 cups kale or collard greens, rinsed and chopped
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp organic miso paste, mixed with 2 tbsp filtered water
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
directions: heat oil in wok or cast iron pan. Add greens, and saute for about 5 minutes on low heat. Greens should be softer, but still bright green once cooked (don’t overcook into a mush). Turn stove off, and add miso mixture. Last, sprinkle sesame seeds on greens. You can get creative and make this simple dish with a variety of veggies.