On your next Meatless Monday or plant-based protein quest, consider running a background check on soy. From capitalizing on the dairy-free demand to joining the GMO gang and posing as a health product, soy is in the spotlight for some bad-boy behaviour.
The Surge of Soy Products
Soy is a booming biz. Unlike Asia, where soy is mainly consumed in whole soybean form (and as a condiment), North America’s refined soy production has supersized over the last few decades.
To better illustrate this mammoth surge, last year we produced over 6 billion tonnes of soybeans here in Canada. Among that soy supply, more than half was genetically modified to resist herbicides. In the US, about 94% of soy crops are GMO.
Imagine your friendly neighbour spritzing their genetically modified garden with toxic bug spray right beside your organic, sustainably harvested fresh veggie patch. You probably wouldn’t want them to lend you some sugar.
Touted as a renewable alternative to petrochemicals (think soy-based ink) and a popular dairy-free bevy, soy has evolved into an international super bean since its early origins in Southeast Asia. But the current soy mug shot isn’t a clear picture of health.
Why Soy Bad?
Soy products have been praised as enriched dairy-free alternatives packed with hormone-mimicking, hot-flash-fighting prowess. They can also mimic bacon and hot dogs, or a Thanksgiving feast (tofurkey, anyone?). From soymilk to protein, yogurt and spreads, soy has risen to epic proportions in replacing traditional grocery staples with plant-derived prospects.
While the soy industry may be banking on the vegetarian or lactose intolerant crowd, refined soy is about as healthy as conventional grain-fed meat (ironically, soy is used in cattle feed).
Trans fats are often hidden under the guise of ‘partially hydrogenated soybean oil’. This can easily creep into a household pantry unless we’re inspecting food labels like a boss. Soy is also used as an emulsifier or preservative in foods and cosmetics (soy lecithin), and a derivative in supplements like vitamin E (tocopherols).
Tragically, most commercial soy sauce found in sushi joints and at the bottom of take-out bags has been chemically processed. Therefore, they’re laden with wheat and drowned in salt. A far cry from the ancient fermented soybean tradition.
Then we have the eco-ethical implications of soy production. Deforestation, soil depletion, an unsustainable agriculture model and neurotoxic chemical solvents like hexane – none of which shout health or longevity.
Could Soy Also be Messing with our Mojo?
The idea of phytoestrogens might conjure up images of fierce feminist warriors. These isoflavones in soy (or plant estrogen compounds) are indeed hard-core. In fact, they can actually mimic the body’s natural estrogen hormone mechanisms.
The man-boob phenomenon is linked to an increased consumption of phytoestrogens, along with a laundry list of hormonal and reproductive imbalances experienced by both women and men.
Think of it this way: a baby on soy formula is ingesting the equivalent of at least 4 birth control pills!
Unfermented soy forms, like tofu and edamame, also contain some ugly anti-nutrients. These include enzyme inhibitors (a.k.a. tummy troubles) and goitrogens, or thyroid-hindering compounds. Unlike other legumes and cruciferous veggies, those anti-nutrients don’t necessarily get neutralized when soaked or cooked. We can add allergies and cancer correlations to soy’s bad rap sheet too.
For more scientific back-up, the Weston A. Price Foundation sums up nearly a century’s worth of soy data.
Soy’s Silver Lining
To be fair, soy ain’t all bad. In its traditional fermented form, like organic non-GMO miso, tempeh and natto, soy is a powerhouse of healthy gut-loving nutrients. The friendly by-products of fermented soybeans (tamari or shoyu) offer a savoury alternative to generic soy sauce. With thriving enzymes, protein, vitamins, minerals and live bacteria cultures, it might be worth trading the cow for some of these magic fermented beans.
Befriending non-GMO, unrefined and organic soy in moderation will ultimately tread lighter on our health and Mother Earth. Try it as a raw unpasteurized condiment, or sink your teeth into a tasty tempeh burger.
As conscious consumers, we can keep those chopsticks handy and put ‘em to healthy use.