Soy is always a hot topic of debate, especially amongst health enthusiasts, vegans, and vegetarians. Some are for it, others completely against it. It can get quite confusing because there are so many different opinions. Decades ago we were told to eat it regularly for optimal health and disease prevention, and nowadays we’re told to stay away from it! Throughout Asia, soy is part of many traditional diets, and these populations certainly aren’t suffering from the health issues that some claim soy is connected to.
The Soy Debate Simplified
The best way to understand why there is such a divided and opposing opinion about soy, it’s best to first look at the soy foods and products people are eating. In Asia, they eat food made out of whole soy beans, many of these foods are fermented, which makes it easier to digest and releases some of the anti-nutrients. When studies were done on the benefits of soy, the studies were based on whole soy beans. Soy beans are very high in protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Cultures that eat a lot of soy beans are eating cooked, whole soy beans like edamame, and foods made out soybeans (that could also be fermented) like tempeh, tofu, miso, natto, traditional soy sauce, etc.
Over the last few decades, there have been studies and research revealing the benefits of soy. Those in the West (USA, Canada, etc.) got really excited about the beneficial findings. Soy became regarded as a superfood, especially amongst vegan and vegetarian circles due to the high amount of plant-based protein and nutrients. The problem with soy’s gain of popularity in the West was that soy byproducts were already in people’s diets without people being aware of it. If you go to any grocery store or health food store, and look at the ingredients of most pre-made food items (sauces, dressings, crackers, breads, chips, cookies, ice cream, etc.) they usually have some sort of soy byproduct in it, like soy bean oil, hydrolyzed soy protein, soy lecithin, and other processed soy ingredients. These byproducts are used as thickening agents, fillers, cheap oils, stabilizers, etc., and none of them are healthy. There is a HUGE difference between whole soy beans and isolate soy byproducts. And, if your diet is already full of soy byproducts, you certainly don’t want to be adding even more soy to it, even if it’s considered healthy. As we already know, “having too much of anything, is never really a good thing”.
In addition to all the processed food containing soy byproducts, many people in the West who are eating soy foods, aren’t necessarily eating whole soy bean food items like tempeh, edamame, and natto, but instead are eating processed soy products like tofu hot dogs, soy cheese, soy protein powder, and commercial soy milk. If you look at the ingredients listed on any of these processed food items, I’m sure you won’t even be able to pronounce majority of the ingredients, let alone know what they are, or where they come from. There’s a huge difference between a tofu hot dog and a piece of tempeh!!!
So is soy healthy or not?
Well, I think foods made out of whole soy beans like tempeh, tofu, edamame, natto, miso, etc. are healthy, and fine to eat. One thing consumers should be looking out for is making sure the soy beans and foods made out of soy are Non-GMO, and the label should indicate that. If buying organic soy, the label should indicate both organic and non-GMO, not just organic.
What about the isoflavones / phytoestrogens and goitrogens?
Well, soy is not the only food on the planet that has isoflavones / phytoestrogens, and goitrogens, in fact many vegetables, seeds, and grains have these compounds. Because soy must be cooked or fermented in order for it to be edible (raw soy is toxic), some of the goitrogens, anti-nutrients, and other unhealthy compounds are destroyed during the cooking and/or fermenting process. To protect your health, you do want to be mindful of your portions, cut out all processed food that contains soy byproducts, and have as much overall variety in your diet as possible. I believe having small quantities of tempeh, edamame, tofu, miso, natto, etc.. a few times a month is perfectly acceptable, but I do recommend being mindful of the portions, using these foods more like a condiment rather than as a main meal. If you have pre-existing hormone or thyroid issues, then of course it would be best to avoid soy completely.
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