Misleading health information and why you should avoid soya
I first wrote an article about soya in 2007 as a guide for my clients who had added soya products into their diets for ‘health’ reasons. Over 11 years later I still find myself regularly having a conversation about this foodstuff and products made with it. Back in the ‘noughties’ and earlier, soya milk was often recommended for adults and children suffering from eczema or for babies and young children who were lactose intolerant. Today there are many other alternative foods they can eat that do not come with the health risks associated with consuming soya.
I’ve updated my original document below and to this day I still encourage clients to ditch the soya. It is still ubiquitous in processed foods and animal feeds so avoiding it altogether can be tricky but awareness allows us to make better choices and the less processed foods we have the less ‘hidden’ soya we will consume generally. Soya milk, yoghurt, ice cream and vegan/vegetarian meal replacement products should be avoided at all costs for both health and environmental reasons.
How did we get into this mess?
Prior to World war I, the Americans began experimenting with using protein meal from soya as an animal feed but found that farmers were reluctant to use it as it was indigestible to both chickens and pigs (anything indigestible to pigs is pretty indigestible!). They were at the same time looking for new uses for soya oil but this along with the soya protein meal was also considered unpalatable and its use remained mainly restricted to soap production. Cotton seed oil (a by-product of the cotton industry) had been the main edible oil in the USA up until this point but a disease in mono-cropped cotton together with unprecedented demand during the war from the Allies who required oil as food and for the manufacture of explosives, stimulated the need for alternative oil production and research into how soya oil could be used to fulfill this requirement continued apace.
It wasn’t until the 1940s however that the soya industry learned how to deactivate the enzyme inhibitor in soya protein meal sufficiently for animals to tolerate it, and for technology taken from the Nazis at the end of WWII to be used to produce soya oil without its characteristic foul smell and flavour. During the reconstruction of Europe in the 1950s the Americans promoted soya by heavily subsidising US surpluses for export thus ensuring its dominance in European animal feeds. These subsidies continue to this day.
During the 1980s the soya industry started waging its own war against tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil fuelled by publicity over the health risks associated with eating saturated fats (a myth that has been largely debunked). Amidst a huge publicity drive it heralded soya oil as a health-promoting food and soon nearly all fast food restaurants in the US had switched from tropical oils to hydrogenated soya bean oil. Hydrogenated oils have since been found to be one of the major culprits in increasing rates of cardiovascular disease and the beginnings of the obesity crisis. Times move on and rapeseed oil (another very questionable product) is now replacing or being used with soya oil in many processed foods.
Throughout the 1990s buoyed up by its success in promoting its products, the soya industry bought up land and began planting soya throughout Latin America where land was cheap and labour costs were minimal. Much environmental damage and social upheaval has ensued over the years from this practice. The global soya market is largely dominated by a handful of American trading companies, which control a large proportion of European soya bean crushing and animal feed manufacturing. Additionally, they dominate the US market and account for well over 50% of Brazilian soya exports. To keep pace with demand, virgin rainforest in Brazil is being illegally felled to make room for further production and the US is exporting soya back to China (its home) as newly urbanized Chinese switch to an industrialized western diet.
Soya oil is high in omega 6 and its use has driven the post-war explosion in the snack food market. Its widespread use in so many processed foodstuffs is one of the reasons that our omega 3 / omega 6 balance (the essential fatty acids that help keep us in good health) is in disarray.
The Discovery of the Truth About Soya
In 1991 Dr. Mike Fitzpatrick a consultant toxicologist was asked to investigate soya by a rare bird enthusiast who thought it was killing his parrots. The bird expert had begun giving his chicks soya feed marketed in the US as a new miracle food, despite the fact that parrots do not eat soya in the wild. The results were catastrophic with many birds dying and others becoming infertile, reaching early puberty or aging prematurely. Fitzpatrick quickly discovered that soya contained toxins and plant oestrogens powerful enough to disrupt womens’ menstrual cycles and to damage the thyroid gland.
Lobbying by the bird enthusiast (a retired lawyer) eventually forced governments to investigate and in 2002 the results were published in the UK. Research concluded that in general, the health benefits claimed for soya were not supported by clear evidence and that there could be risks from high levels of consumption amongst certain age groups. In particular, Fitzpatrick’s research into soya’s oestrogenic effects led him to calculate that babies fed exclusively on soya formula could receive the oestrogenic effect (based on body weight) of 5 birth control pills a day. It has been known since the 1980s that plant oestrogens (phyto-oestrogens) can produce biological effects in humans. In soya protein the most common of these are a group of compounds called isoflavones.
American strains of soya, because they are bred to be more pest resistant, contain significantly higher levels of isoflavones than those planted in China and Japan. Couple this with modern factory production methods which do not reduce the levels in the way that traditional fermentation processes do and we are left with a product which is promoted as a health food but has the potential to do far more harm than good.
Soya Marketing & Consumption
Many vegans and vegetarians rely on soya as a source of dietary protein despite the fact that better, natural, more usable forms are available in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Unless a diet is vastly restricted it is difficult for an adult to be short of protein.
Soya is ‘said’ to be beneficial for people with ‘heat signs’ such as feeling hot, red face and / or eyes, high blood pressure, constipation, great thirst and other signs of dryness. This is one of the reasons it is recommended for menopausal women suffering from hot flushes and vaginal dryness. There are many other safe ways to help reduce menopausal symptoms however including regular exercise, a good all-round diet containing plenty of vegetables and fruit, ground linseeds, red clover and sage tea.
Some research has shown that eating soya can lower LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol. This information is now irrelevant, as high cholesterol is no longer seen as a driver for heart disease. In any case those who eat a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains tend to have balanced cholesterol levels that have a beneficial effect on overall good health.
Other research points to a diet rich in organic plants foods and containing no animal milk as a preventative to the reoccurrence of malignant cells in breast cancer sufferers. There are plenty of healthy organic plant foods available and calcium is found in good quantities in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Dairy milk is therefore not required at all but using soya milk as a replacement makes no sense. It is rarely organic and although it is obviously a plant it is too highly processed to be of benefit.
Soya-based infant formula has always been a controversial issue. What is clear is that it is not an ideal alternative to breast milk and that such a phyto-oestrogen rich food should not be the sole source of nutrition for an infant. Research has shown that soya fed babies have an increased risk of developing thyroid abnormalities later in life and that the high glucose content of soya formula can cause significant tooth decay.
Other people who would be well advised to eliminate refined soya products from their diet include those who suffer with thyroid disorders or digestive tract problems such as loose stool, bloating or IBS, and anyone with ‘damp’ complaints such as excess mucus, tumours, cysts, parasites and yeast sensitivities such as candida.
Food policy experts at the National Consumer Council question whether soya milk should be on sale at all. They also have concerns over the marketing of soya and the claimed health benefits for adults concluding that any supposed benefits may be outweighed by the risks and that the people who should be particularly concerned are those with thyroid problems and women with oestrogen-dependent breast cancer.
Researchers at Edinburgh University looking into declining male fertility levels since the 1950s by studying the effects of soya milk on young male monkeys, concluded that phyto-oestrogens taken in large quantities can alter development and predispose children to later disease.
Other evidence suggests that processed soya products should not be promoted as a quick-fix against ill health. Modern processing methods in effect amount to hormones being added to foods and the long-term cumulative effects of this are unknown.
Why and How Soya Appears in our Foods
Over 50% of processed foods sold in the UK today contain some form of soya. This means that most people are consuming it without even realizing. It is included in foodstuffs for a variety of reasons e.g. it increases the protein content of processed meat products, it is used as the protein component in vegetarian foods, it stops industrially produced bread from shrinking, it enables cakes to retain their water content, it helps manufacturers mix water into oils, and hydrogenated soya oil is cheap to use for deep fried fast foods.
Soya appears on food labels in many guises, which is why it is difficult to evaluate how much is being consumed on an individual basis. It can be crushed, separated and refined into different parts and appear on food labels as:
• Hydrolysed vegetable protein
• Lecithin (emulsifier)
• Plant sterols
• Protein concentrate
• Soya protein isolate
• TVP (textured vegetable protein)
• Vegetable oil (simple, fully or partially hydrogenated)
Much of this refined soya is produced from GM crops so is considered by many to be undesirable from a health, environmental and ethical point of view.
If you read labels you will find soya in a huge range of products including:
• Baby formula
• Breakfast cereal
• Cereal bars
• Dairy desserts
• Deep fried takeaways
• Ice cream
• Ready meals
• Sandwich spreads
• Sausage casings
Refined Soya products v Wholefood Soya Products
In China, soya was originally grown as a green manure for its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and until the Chinese found ways of fermenting the beans it was considered indigestible. Traditional fermentation processes take around 18 months and make valuable amino acids from the beans available, while at the same time taming its undesirable anti-nutrients.
It’s no surprise to learn that wholefood soya products are less harmful than refined products but it can be difficult to tell which are which particularly as so many foods are labeled as ‘natural’.
In essence, wholefood soya products are traditionally fermented and include miso, tamari and shoyu (soya sauces), natto and tempeh, a protein-rich wholefood alternative to tofu.
Edamame beans are young soya beans that are served in many dishes including wholefood salads, or are fried or baked into snacks. Whilst eating these beans in their natural state on occasion won’t cause too much harm, when made into snack foods or sprouted they should be avoided.
Refined soya products are the ones which we see most of and include tofu, soya milk, soya desserts (inc. ‘yoghurt’) and TVP. Organic tofu is fermented without the use of chemicals so is a superior product to regular tofu. This too should form only a small part of a varied, healthy diet.
Tamari and shoyu soya sauces made using traditional fermentation processes are healthful products. Most commercial soya sauces however are not as their fermentation process is cut short by using de-fatted soya protein meal instead of whole beans as their base. (Soya burgers and sausages mostly use this same chemically extracted fraction of the bean.) Various grades of soya sauce labeled as ‘naturally brewed’ are given accelerated aging at high temperatures over 3-6 months and are therefore undesirable. Non-brewed soya sauce is even worse. It is cheap (being made in just 2 days) and highly adulterated containing high levels of the unnatural form of glutamate found in MSG.
Commercial soya milk is made either from soya isolates via a chemical extraction process or superiorly from whole beans. Both contain oestrogenic isoflavones and claim to contain complete proteins. The European Natural Soya Manufacturers Association claims that members’ products are a healthy alternative to dairy. They state that many Europeans are lactose intolerant and that soya milk was invented 4,000 years ago in China and has been consumed there ever since. They also state that all sorts of people now choose to consume soya milk as a cholesterol-free source of quality protein. A detailed history of soya milk however suggests that it was not made as a drink (except in times of famine) but produced as the first step in making tofu. The traditional process involved a long, slow boiling of soya beans in water to eliminate toxins followed by the addition of a curdling agent. The curds would then be pressed to make tofu and the whey which contained most of the anti-nutrients would be thrown away.
Various alternatives to dairy milk are now available. Oat, coconut, almond and rice milks (check individual ingredient listings as brands vary in their quality and ‘naturalness’) are sold in almost every supermarket. Other nut and seed milks are also available but are easy to make at home and lactose-free dairy milk is also becoming popular and easy to come by. I recommend clients who choose these alternatives to ring the changes so that they get the benefit of various nutrients over time. This also means that anti-nutrients such as arsenic in rice milk are not consumed in high quantities. Parents should do up-to-date research before feeding any milk substitutes to their babies or young children.
Other ways in which soya finds it’s way into foods
Soya protein meal (primarily used in animal feed) is the product of an industrial crushing process which breaks the raw beans down into thin flakes then percolates them with a petroleum-based hexane solvent to extract the oil. The remaining flakes are then toasted and ground into the protein meal (soya flour is made in a similar way). The resultant oil is then processed further to clean, bleach, de-gum and deodorise it, thereby removing the solvent and the oil’s characteristic off smell and flavours. During storage of the oil a heavy sludge known as lecithin forms at the bottom of the vats and what was once regarded as a waste product is now marketed in its own right as an emulsifier (agent used to mix two liquids such as oil and water together) and used in many processed foods including chocolate.
Soya protein is used in agricultural feeds for intensive chicken, beef, dairy, pig and fish farming and is what has made global factory farming of livestock for cheap meat possible. In a domestic context, soya is also found in dog and cat foods. Tom Lonsdale in his book on natural feeding ‘Raw meaty Bones’, states that soya-fed animals are prone to diarrhoea and flatus caused by the bacterial action of soya sugars in the lower bowel and that a component of soya (phytin) has the effect of combining with calcium thus leading to the need for calcium supplementation. Too much calcium in turn creates other mineral imbalances and a vicious circle ensues.
The American soya industry spends over $80m a year on ‘research’ and promoting soya around the globe. This is raised by a mandatory levy on producers and industry sponsored ‘research’ has led to soya being marketed as an antidote to menopausal hot flushes and osteoporosis, and as a protective ingredient against cardiovascular disease and hormone related cancer. The hypotheses behind these claims is that rates of heart disease and certain cancers such as breast and prostate are lower in Asian countries with a soya-rich diet and that the oestrogen in soya might therefore have a protective effect.
Looking at the historic consumption of soya in China and Japan actually shows a different picture. Asians traditionally ate very little soya in terms of quantity - usually between just 8g-36g a day and that was in the form of fermented products. Westerners however who have been misled into consuming soya on health grounds are often exceeding this by large amounts in the form of highly processed soya products including milk, desserts and veggie sausages and burgers (not to mention snack foods such as crisps), with an average consumption of 100g+ per day.
When talking with my clients I can find no good reasons to recommend soya products from a health perspective unless they are traditional foods, properly fermented and consumed in relatively small quantities.