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Soy Protein: To Soy or Not to Soy, Health Benefits Are The Question

By Marissa Vicario

Many of us consume it in everything from our morning coffee to burger substitutes, but products like soymilk and veggie burgers could actually be more dangerous than we think.

Ever since the FDA deemed it heart-healthy, soy and soy-based products have been cropping up all over supermarkets and health food stores. The legume, native to East Asia, is found in 60 percent of processed foods, in everything from baby food to ice cream. Lately, though, there has been widespread controversy surrounding the claims that soy is much healthier for you. In fact, some studies claim that soy can accelerate the onset of breast cancer, lower sperm count and decrease libido. But what, really, is at the root of the concerns about soy? And do we really need to give up all our soy goodies?

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The Concerns Over Soy:

Allergens: As one of the top allergens, soy products can be difficult (if not dangerous) to digest.

Phytoestrogens: While the research is still out on whether or not these plant hormones, which act like female estrogens, are related to the incidence of certain cancers; it is known that phytoestrogens have the ability to disrupt natural hormone function in the body, especially during times such as pregnancy, infancy, puberty, reproductive years and menopause and may even alter sexual development.

Soy Isoflavines: This chemical compound, derived from the soybean, also has an estrogenic effect. While it is being studied for its role in relieving symptoms of menopause, preventing cancer, slowing osteoporosis and reducing the risk of heart disease, soy isoflavines are also being investigated for causing hyperthyroidism.

Phytic Acid: Although all legumes contain some phytic acid, which blocks mineral absorption and can cause zinc and calcium deficiencies, soy contains higher-than-average levels.

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Genetic Modification and Processing: Currently, over 90 percent of the soy on the market is genetically modified and highly processed. Soy protein isolate, the main ingredient in most soy foods, (including substitutes for meat and dairy as well as fast foods, baked goods and diet beverages,) is sprayed with nitrates and MSG during processing.

How to Soy Safely:

Not all soy is created equal. Organic soy that has been fermented, such as miso, tempeh and natto, are far safer since fermentation reduces phytic acid levels in soy, making them more nourishing and digestible.

While, the jury is still out on whether the health risks pertaining to soy outweigh the benefits, there are a few rules of thumb that can be helpful:

Read ingredients and avoid processed foods and genetically modified forms of soy.

Enjoy fermented soy (miso, natto, tempeh) in moderation.

Avoid excess soy consumption during key stages of life: pregnancy, infancy, puberty, the reproductive years and menopause.

Avoid soy if you are taking thyroid medication.

Healthy snacks that keep you away from pretzels and fries.