Is soy healthy?
- The soybean originated in China in the 11th century BC and was first introduced to the United States in 1765 by English farmer Samuel Bowen in Savannah, Georgia.
- Some of the most popular foods made from soybeans are edamame, meat and milk alternatives, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and tofu.
- Statista reports that from 2012-2023 the two leading soybean-producing countries worldwide were Brazil and the United States, with each contributing over 100 million metric tons in production volume by 2014.
- A 2019 United Soybean Board survey of American adults found that 74% of respondents “eat soyfoods or drink soy beverages.”
- About 76% of the world’s soy production is used to feed livestock, while only 20% is used in “direct human food.”
- Soy baby formula accounts for 12% of the infant formula market.
There is no question that soy is a healthy addition to anyone's diet. Soy possesses all nine essential amino acids, making it the only complete plant-based protein. Further, fermented forms of soy aid in digestion. A study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine showed that soy-based foods can also reduce the risk of several cancer variants, such as those affecting the lungs, colon, and prostate. Breast cancer, in particular, has been observed to be prevented with the help of a soy-based diet. Soy has also been shown to benefit both heart and bone health and assist women with menopausal symptoms.
Aside from the health benefits that soybeans offer, the nutritional value of soy is immense. Harvard-affiliated dietician Kathy McManus explains that it is an excellent replacement for red meat and other animal products, 'high in polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and low in saturated fat. Natural soy products — like tofu or edamame — could replace red meat and other animal sources of protein higher in saturated fat.' It's no wonder that vegetarianism is on the rise in the US. However, it's important to note that whole soy foods are considerably healthier than processed soy products, which are 'dehulled and defatted,' effectively stripping soy of most of its nutritional value.
Finally, because soy is so versatile and readily available in most supermarkets, one can as easily whip up an authentic ethnic dish as swap out dairy ingredients in a favorite meal. There are numerous recipes for everyday foods and beyond that make it easy to incorporate this healthy ingredient into anyone's diet.
Soy isn't healthy for human consumption because it contains phytoestrogens that affect hormonal balance. According to Healthline, you should avoid taking all phytoestrogen products unless you are specifically advised to do so by a physician. For over 70 years, we have known that high levels of phytoestrogens make animals, including cows and cheetahs, infertile. But, research has also shown that in humans, the higher the soy intake, the lower the sperm count. Soy has also been linked to other health issues, such as protein breakdown of skeletal muscle, brain aging and the development of Alzheimer's, as well as depression of thyroid function.
Soy also commonly pops up in processed food, an unhealthy alternative to whole foods. For many vegan meat alternatives, soy is processed and mixed with other ingredients, such as chemicals, sugar, trans fats, and other potentially harmful products. Dehulled and defatted soy is particularly detrimental to health. Another danger of soy additives in processed food is that some people are allergic to soy--often without even knowing it.
For those seeking meat alternatives, there are far better and healthier options than soy. A convenient option is seitan, which contains more protein than soy, with none of the phytoestrogens. Whole, protein-rich foods, like lentils, beans, and nuts, provide you with all the protein you need without processing.
Finally, one must ask why so many products contain soy. There is an obvious incentive to push towards cheaper, mass-produced foods containing soy rather than real, nutritious whole foods as our world deals with supply chain issues and rising populations.