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Little boys developing breasts? The Soy Controversy

Posted Feb 21 2011 12:00am

The soy bean… Part of the legume family, it is a perfect plant that provides humans with the protein they need without  the use of animal products.  Soy crops outnumbered wheat crops in this country by 1.3 billion (yes BILLION) bushels, and if you are influenced by what the media is feeding us, you might think that soy is a wonder-food, curing cancer, lowering your cholesterol, and eliminating menopausal symptoms.

But while there is a lot of information out there, there is a lot of mis-information, and dare I say… manipulated information, as well.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

What is soy?

The soy plant produces beans.  These soybeans contain the perfect protein.  There are few plants on earth that are sources of “complete proteins”, that is, the kind of protein that provides the essential amino acids that your body needs to build cells.  It can replace animal protein in the diet and for this reason, and is usually the protein of choice for vegans and vegetarians.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration:

Soy protein products can be good substitutes for animal products because, unlike some other beans, soy offers a ‘complete’ protein profile. … Soy protein products can replace animal-based foodswhich also have complete proteins but tend to contain more fat, especially saturated fatwithout requiring major adjustments elsewhere in the diet.

The soy bean can be cut up, fermented, or powdered to get a particular product for a particular use….like soy flour, soy milk, tempeh or tofu.  This keeps the soy in its “whole” form.

Recent benefits noted

Soy has gotten some press recently when the US Food and Drug Administration allowed package labeling to include the phrase “contains soy that has been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce heart disease”.  There were enough studies done that concluded that eating 25 g of soy products daily can lower cholesterol.  That, in turn, reduces the incidence of heart disease.  This pertains to eating the whole soy protein, and not taking pills or powder that contain soy subparts as in protein drinks and energy bars.

In premenopausal women, soy (specifically isoflavones, which are termed phytoestrogens, a part of soy that effects estrogen) can prevent breast cancer, and in men, can prevent prostate cancer.  Studies are underway to look at prevention of osteoporosis, and colon cancer as well.   But these studies looked at whole soy protein intake.  

Here are some ways you might see whole soy listed:

  • soya, soja, soybeans, soyabeans
  • textured soy flour
  • yuba
  • edamame
  • kinako
  • miso
  • natto
  • tempeh
  • tofu
Good soy , bad soy

There is some controversy as to whether the whole soy (found in soy beans and soy flour) is the same as the fractionated soy (found in processed products and labeled as “soy protein” or “hydrolyzed soy protein”).

There is strong evidence that “hydrolyzing” the soy renders it useless, and some say harmful, in giving you all the benefits of the soy plant and is functionally close to evil MSG.  When I did research for my  article on MSG , the evidence was pretty compelling, and I am now limiting my intake of hydrolyzed and isolate proteins.

Companies that manufacture “high protein” processed foods also use soy to increase the amount of protein in their product.  Because soybeans and soy products are very stable, they can be incorporated in many products to have a great shelf-life.  But the soy that goes into manufactured foods are hydrolyzed by breaking down the whole soy and re-assembling it into a product that the body does not recognize as “soy”.

Processed soy derivatives are in most foods you are already eating. Processed soy products can be found in everything from hot chocolate to peanut butter.Any food that has the words “high in protein” on the package probably has processed soy products in them.
Here are some ways you might find processed soy in your foods.  

  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP)
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Lecithin and soy lecithin
  • soy protein or textured soy protein (TSP)
  • soy isolate
  • vegetable protein or textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • mono-diglyceride
  • natural flavor

There are also some studies that look at the effect of other soy subparts–specifically the isoflavones phytoestrogen and genistein (the hormone-like sub parts of soy).  In one study, rats were given high doses of the soy isoflavones. The breast tissue in the male rats that ingested high doses of these components of soy developed hyperplasia–a thickening of mammary glands that can sometimes lead to cancer–but didn’t in these rats.  With hyperplasia, the tissue is thickened, but not over produced. (so, no…the rats didn’t develop he-teets)  This lead some to conclude that if the fractionated soy caused male rats to develop breast tissue, the same would be true for boys (and girls) drinking soy milk.

This study would be similar to if you took carrots, which are obviously healthy when eaten whole, and pulled out all the vitamin A, and hit rats with super-mega doses of it.  Vitamin A is healthy when consumed in foods, but an excess of pure Vitamin A is lethal.  One could conclude that because the mega-dose of Vitamin A killed the rats, carrots are lethal as well.  This just does not make good sense.

When  this study  hit the mainstream media last year, the data was reported to the effect that soy can lead to breast enlargement in men and boys… sure got the male readers attention, and the attention of the moms of baby boys.

But again, the study was done using soy sub-parts, not the whole natural soy as found in soy milk.  So is this study valid for all soy products?  It’s unlikely.

Some have taken this news and run with it–a preacher for one–who claims that the increased soy in our diets is “making our kids gay”.  (Get this man some education!–and a forehead reduction STAT!)

Soy formula has been gaining popularity in past decades, and with it, some concern over the phytoestrogens in them.  However, a 2009 report by the Canadian Pediatric Society states that there have been no adverse reactions or negative effects from the use of soy formula in babies–male or female–and there is no need for avoidance.  They cite, again, that the whole form of soy, (that is the whole protein) when consumed, is safe and beneficial, and can provide  the necessary form of protein need by infants to develop normally.  But they also cite that soy formula should be only be a last resort when feed you baby because

Of note is the potential harm of GMO soy, or genetically modified soy.   Genetically modified means that the soy plants have been altered in their DNA to grow faster, better, and bigger for increased production.  Modern science doesn’t know if these chemically enhanced plants can get into our systems and affect our bodies.  Soy and corn made up 82% of all GMO harvested foods in the world.  When buying soy products, you should always look for organic .  This ensures that the soy is non-GMO.

There is also evidence that soy can interfere with thyroid hormone replacement medications and they should not be taken together to ensure proper absorption.  but you can take them several hours apart to avoid any issue.

The “Down with Soy” groups

There are specific groups that have made it their cause to ban soy products from the market and try to feed us with false information to scare us into avoiding soy.

One of these groups is the Weston A Price Foundation .  This is a group which follows the teachings of a dentist, Dr Price. (um..a dentist….) The group advocates eating foods that are locally grown, and organic.  They advocate eating minimally processed foods and support local farming.  (sounds good so far, right?)

But they also are proponents of eating diets high in animal fats, specifically high in saturated fats and cholesterol, and drinking raw milk. They believe that one can only achieve true health through eating meat, organ meats, and whole dairy products …and plenty of them.   They have a very active lobbying effort to ban soy formula worldwide and have a very active internet campaign to “educate the public on the dangers and the dark side of soy”.  It’s unclear whether they mean all soy?  or just the hydrolyzed kind.

It’s no big surprise that the foundation’s biggest “sponsors” when they have conferences are big names in the dairy and grass-fed beef industry.  And it doesn’t matter that Dr Price’s “research” has been labeled “misguided” by many critics.

You can check out their interesting website here .  You may want to jot down the recipe for Poached Veal Brain with Brown Butter Capers. …mmmmm…got brains? (just for info, this recipe contains 751 cal per serving with 70 g fat 33 g saturated fat….that’s over the amount slated for a whole day’s intake…., 3748 mg cholesterol…. the amount one should have in a day….. and 616 mg sodium)

Needless to say,  if you find a site that states soy is poison, check to see who owns the site before you take the information to heart.

Too much of a good thing?

There is a phenomenon in our culture that when we hear that something is good for us, we overdose on it! This is true for soy as well.

While it is true that soy can be beneficial and a useful part of a healthy diet, it is not a cure-all.  Soy should be used to enhance an already healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, and simple whole grains without processed foods (that includes limiting processed soy products like soy “lunch meats”).  Soy products provide complete protein sources and can be used in many ways.  But read your labels to see if the soy you’re eating is whole or processed.

The bottom line

  • Processed foods that contain “soy protein”, “soy isolate”, or “hydrolyzed soy protein” are not the healthy form of soy and should be avoided.
  • whole soy contains isoflavones, phytoestrogen, and genistein which can affect hormones, but are not activated hormones, so while they may protect from hormone based cancer (breast, prostate) they cannot make boys develop breasts.
  • the nutritional benefits of whole soy has been studied and has been found to be a good source of complete protein as part of a healthy diet.
  • whole soy can help lower cholesterol when used as part of a low-fat diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains
  • one serving of whole soy per day is enough (1/2 cup tofu, 1 cup soymilk, 1/2 cup edamame…)
  • soy in its whole form is safe for everyone including babies and children of both sexes when consumed in the proper amounts
  • use organic soy products whenever possible to avoid GMO soy
  • premenopausal women/men can reduce their risk of breast cancer/prostate cancer by eating one serving of soy/day
  • women with a history of breast cancer may benefit from eating a diet that includes a small amount of soy, although this is still controversial.

I welcome your thoughts!


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