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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 22, 2008

Scrutinizing Soy

By Mark Sisson
117 Comments

You’ve heard me comment here and there about Big Agra’s favorite legume, but I thought it was time to truly sit down with soy, stare it in the eye and get to the bottom of its real intentions.

Just so you know, we had an amicable exchange, and both parties came away from the table having learned a thing or two about open-mindedness and media frenzy.

It’s true, soy was once nutrition’s sweetheart. It could do no wrong (much like multi-grain anything these days). Within a shockingly brief period, it was thrust into the limelight, granted liberties it wasn’t ready for and didn’t, in all fairness, ask for. Its sudden fame propelled it into the likes of the dairy aisle, the barbeque line-up, even infant formula. Talk about big shoes to fill! Could anyone truly stand up to such phenomenal pressure and responsibility?

And so we find soy in its current circumstances, dissected by the health media, floundering, searching for a center long ago obscured, grasping for its authentic, legitimate role in nutritional balance.

All right, I’m ready to heave. Still with me? Just know that I’m completely serious about the media food frenzy, pun intended. Nutrition should be treated with more rationality and common sense than the parading line of fads and momentary cult worship. Maybe that’s what’s so satisfying about the primal diet: it doesn’t get any more basic than primitive.

Anyway, let’s get on with things and break it down.

Soy and Processing
The mantra applies here as well. All together now: Eat food, not food products. This doesn’t mean you have to forgo all forms of soy, but I’ll just say up front that food products with “the benefits of soy” conveniently added in just aren’t convincing me.

As I’ve said before, soy really needs some form of preparation before it’s safe to eat, and that in and of itself gives me pause. That said, minimally processed soy forms like fermented tempeh and miso as well as edamame seem like preferable options.

Soy processing isn’t a very comforting picture with acid washing and neutralization solutions, large and leaching aluminum tanks, and high temperature heating (rarely a good thing in the food world). And this doesn’t take into account the artificial flavorings, including MSG, that are oftentimes added to improve flavor. (Hmmm. When we say healthy tastes great, we kind of mean a food itself and not all the chemical crap added to it. No?) Finally, it’s vital to go organic when it comes to soy. Not only is it nearly all genetically modified, it has one of the highest pesticide contamination levels of any crop.

Soy and Cancer
We’re talking mostly about breast cancer here. The culprit in question is the group of soy isoflavones, plant hormones that mimics estrogen in the body. Some research has shown that isolated isoflavones, a.k.a. phytoestrogens, contribute to the growth of tumors in the breast, endometrium and uterus.

It essentially comes back to the whole foods question. The research has focused on the isolated isoflavones, particularly genistein, the most active of the soy isoflavones that activates cellular estrogen receptors, including those in breast tumors. Noted experts in the field have cautioned that research with isolated soy compounds does not necessarily carry over well to the effect of the whole food, even minimally processed soy flour. In other words, soy is healthier than the sum of its parts. Other studies have shown that the mix of phytoestrogens in soy, when taken together in whole soy foods, protect estrogen receptors and may partly shield them from the estrogen we take in with meat and dairy consumption (yup, bovine hormones even in organic). They can also possibly reduce the impact of the unequivocally insidious “xenoestrogens” found in chemical pollutants.

Add to this picture the analysis of cultural diet and disease trends. Though Japanese women regularly eat significant portions of soy (in forms like tempeh, edamame, miso and tofu), they have only 1/5 of the breast cancer rate that Western women.

Soy and Thyroid Function
Researchers are in general agreement that people with previously diagnosed hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) should not take soy supplements. There’s not as much agreement, however, about soy and diet. The isoflavones in soy inhibit thyroid peroxidase, which produces T3 and T4, which can make a bad situation worse for those with diagnosed hypothyroidism or, as some suggest, help cause hypothyroidism to begin with.

It’s also important to note that soy isn’t the only food that has goitrogenic effects. Other foods in this category include (but aren’t limited to) cruciferous vegetables, corn and lima beans.

Soy and Mineral Absorption
Soybeans are high in phytic acid, which is known to block the body’s absorption of minerals such as calcium, zinc magnesium and iron. (Pertinent Insertion: grain-based diets have been shown to do the same thing.) Nonetheless, soybeans have the highest level of phytates. Fermentation is known to substantially reduce phytate levels, which is why you often hear that fermented soy forms are preferable. Other sources note that a meat or fish accompaniment to soy will reduce the effects of the phytates.

Bottom line…
Whole and fermented soy forms are clearly preferable. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with anything else. I know all of you soy milk lovers cringe when I say that. If you recall, I acknowledged a while back that organic and unsweetened non-GMO soy milk probably wasn’t a worse choice than regular cow’s milk.

I think there is something to the benefits of whole soy, and MDA has cheered and endorsed tempeh and miso more times than I can likely remember now. Not only do we endorse fermented food around her, but we appreciate the smart protein and blood sugar stabilization of tempeh.

Nonetheless, I’m still mindful of common soy concerns. I question the need for soy supplements, and I’m unequivocally against soy in infant formula (at least a whole entry unto itself!). For healthy adults, however, I acknowledge that soy can have a legitimate place in a well-rounded diet.

You’ve got my take now. What’s your thinking on soy? Shoot me a line.

Kanko* Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Tempeh, Natto, Tahini Hurrah!

Spoutin’ Off on Veganism (Again)

Eating Fabulous: Soy May Help in Weight Loss

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117 Comments on "Scrutinizing Soy"

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charlotte
8 years 8 months ago
THANK YOU Mark & Co. for this post. As a vegetarian-gone-vegan-gone-back-vegetarian, I have been so confused about soy for SO long. My instincts tell me that anything processed is not good. (My motto is the closer it is to how it came out of the ground, the better it is for you). And yet, there is so much hype out there. Esp. in vegan circles – all the tofurkey and soy cookies (made with corn syrup!!) & other concoctions that don’t even remotely resemble a plant. I’ve always enjoyed tempeh and edamame but I knew there was a reason that… Read more »
Katie
Katie
8 years 8 months ago
Ah, fermented soy. It’s so much tastier than the processed stuff. Soy sauce, tamari, miso, natto…If it weren’t for the salt in the first three, I think I could eat them all day long. Edamame as well. As for soy milk, it’s pretty good and probably good for you as well if you make it yourself, which really isn’t that difficult. And you’re completely right, Charlotte, about some vegans and vegetarians seeming to consume no plants. As a former vegetarian–as in I now eat fish very rarely–it always drove me nuts that people seemed to believe the last thing you… Read more »
Huckleberry
8 years 8 months ago
One problem with soy consumption in this country is that it’s treated as a bulk filler rather than a food with traditional forms of preparation, eaten in moderation. It gets snuck it into packaged foods and fed to meat-producing animals, until we end up eating it in quantity and not quality. Michael Pollan lists soy as one of the four foods (all grains, incidentally) that make up the majority of what we eat in this country; we should be eating less of it, and eating more traditional and healthy versions when we do. I agree with Charlotte; I’m wary of… Read more »
Migraineur
8 years 8 months ago
I was in Whole Foods yesterday, buying cream, eggs, Chinese broccoli, a grass-fed steak, and a bottle of kombucha. Most of these foods were unprocessed, some were processed in ways that my grandmother could have done in her own kitchen. The person in line ahead of me was buying a large assortment of vegan processed foods in colorful boxes, bags, and cans, including something called “vegan sugar.” (I had no idea that regular sugar was an animal product!) The person in line behind me was buying a large assortment of vegetarian processed foods in colorful boxes, bags, and cans (including… Read more »
b3nj4m1n
b3nj4m1n
6 years 10 months ago

In the processing of sugar I think they use bone char in the filtering process of cane sugar. I think I remember this from when I was a vegan. I am happy to say that I am totally recovered and eating eggs and bacon for breakfast right now.

namastemama
namastemama
5 years 10 months ago

oh my! I just love looking in people’s shopping carts. so more info learned.

Brian A
Brian A
8 years 8 months ago
I was reading an article about supplements, foods, and types of exercise and sleep patterns to naturally increase the amount of testosterone and growth hormone in the body. It was aimed at bodybuilders, but it caught my attention when mentioning recovery from exercise. I don’t know if I’m getting it exactly right, but in there it mentioned that anytime we try to increase/decrease our body’s production/uptake of either testosterone or estrogen, the body simply produces more of the other to bring it back into balance which is of more importance than actual levels above the minimum. If true, then it… Read more »
charlotte
8 years 8 months ago
Migraneur – AMEN to hating anything that comes in a box. I love your “whole foods” line, I totally want to use that sometime. Also, many vegans eschew regular sugar because it is processed by filtering thru bone char (from animals). Although my vegan friends had no problems eating high fructose corn syrup or “brown rice syrup” etc. Katie – I had one “vegetarian” friend who only ate white pasta with cheese & sauce (or white pizza with cheese & sauce). She couldn’t recognize spinach when it was put on her plate. I dubbed her a “pasta-tarian” or a vegetarian… Read more »
Walter
Walter
2 months 18 days ago

Talk about bad religion!

Katie
Katie
8 years 8 months ago

Ah, see when I was a vegetarian–and still now when I eat well–I think I ate more vegetables than the rest of my family put together. The only grain I ate on a regular basis was oatmeal. Just pasta and cheese, that’s crazy stuff.

Migraineur
8 years 8 months ago
Charlotte – that’s interesting about sugar. But in that case I would not advise a vegan to go too far back in the processing chain on any food unless they want to find themselves with nothing to eat! Plowing kills little critters, as does machine harvesting. Pest control usually means killing the creepy crawlies that eat our crops, even the methods that are acceptable in organic farming. (Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just tell Japanese bean beetles “shoo, you!”) Fish fertilizer is an acceptable input for organic farming. And the list goes on. You could make yourself crazy… Read more »
OK Ravenhurst
4 years 2 days ago

Don’t forget, any time they flush after taking a dump, they’re killing off billions of innocent intestinal organisms!

So not only are True Absolute Vegans unable to *eat* anything, they really shouldn’t be expelling anything either.

The Ultimate True Vegan should aim to be inert, like a rock. Oh, that sounds like a great slogan: 99.999999999% of the Cosmos is Vegan, so why shouldn’t you!

(Disclaimer: No rocks were harmed during the typing of this post. However my immune system probably killed off some thousands of living organisms and their families, for whom I will mourn appropriately)

sarena
8 years 8 months ago

As a former vegetarian (14yrs), vegan, raw foodist etc, I wholly agree with the Whole Foods Scenario cause I too was that person!! Although to give me some credit I always did eat an assortment of veggies and fruits!! But after turning carnivore, (and adding more fitness) I went from a size 14 (used to be a 22) to size 4-6 in a relatively short time of just about a 1.5 years.
MEAT RULES!!

Sonagi
Sonagi
8 years 8 months ago
I laughed out loud at Migraineur’s description of what vegetarians put in their shoppping carts. Fake cheeses are the worst, for they’re all made with refined vegetable oils. Tofutti cream cheese substitute lists partially hydrogenated soybean oil as its first ingredient. Fake meats and cheeses are to vegetarians what artificial sweeteners are to sugar addicts – a poor dietary substitute. If you’re going to be a vegetarian, then eat like one and relish the flavors of plant foods. I was vegetarian for a few years and vegan for one year. What I appreciated most about being vegan was discovering new… Read more »
Katie
Katie
8 years 8 months ago

Sonagi, it’s interesting that you mention veggie burgers. It’s amazing what the ingredients in those things are. Disgusting, really. I’ve only found one in stores that look to be made from real ingredients, and even then it has three types of corn things in it, though none of it is corn syrup. There’s a small cafe near where I live that makes and sells it’s own veggie burgers, with all of eight ingredients: bulgur, tahini, sunflower seeds, spinach, mushrooms, onion, carrot and pepper. That’s got to be one of the tastiest things I’ve ever had.

Sonagi
Sonagi
8 years 8 months ago

And let me chide vegetarians for ignoring the symbiotic relationship between the dairy industry and the meat industry. Half the offspring of dairy cows are fattened and slaughtered in less than one year while their sisters have the lives milked out of them in two to three years before making that final journey up the ramp where the stun gun awaits.

Walter
Walter
2 months 18 days ago

The vegetarians hear that the dairy and meat industry connection from the Vegans. I don’t think we need tell them. ITMT, dairy and eggs will sustain them.

Coconut Not Only Protects Your Liver From Alcohol — But From a Diet Deficient in Meat and Eggs Too!

http://chrismasterjohnphd.com/2010/06/03/coconut-not-only-protects-your-liver/

Brian A
Brian A
8 years 8 months ago
Since we are all fond of lumping ‘vegetarians’ into a group based on ‘this-guy-I-know’, can I do the same with all omnivores who are just as guilty of going to Whole Foods and Trader Joes and filling their carts with ‘healthy’ chips, cookies, muffins, and over-processed frozen chicken nuggets. The vegetarian/vegan lifestyle is perfectly healthy when done properly. I am living breathing proof that all the things claimed by the chimpanzee-diet eschewed here can be experienced without ingesting meat. Let me re-phrase my previous question to ask what the symptoms of not eating meat might be so I can tell… Read more »
Migraineur
8 years 8 months ago

Brian A – I’ve been thinking about your question, and I’d like to offer a hypothesis. Perhaps our bodies can compensate for hormonal imbalances, but only to a certain degree. If we put more of a hormone into our bodies than the body would reasonably expect to naturally find, maybe our bodies can’t make enough of the counteracting hormone to balance it.

Sonagi – I forgot about the fake cheeses. My unhealthy friend eats them, too – he claims to have lactose intolerance.

Migraineur
8 years 8 months ago
Oops, Brian – our replies “crossed in the mail.” I can’t answer your second question about soy vs. meat. Truthfully, like Mark, I am unsure about whether soy is a nutritional angel, devil, or neutral party. However, I am personally uncomfortable consuming it in large quantities because I am more comfortable with other protein alternatives. I do eat soy occasionally – I have a carton of unsweetened soy milk in my fridge right now, first one I’ve bought in, literally, years. And I like occasional tofu and edamame, too. And I am not picking on all vegetarians – just a… Read more »
Brian A
Brian A
8 years 8 months ago

I might ask that if you want to eat like a caveman, why don’t you want to live in a cave? 😉

Henry Miller
Henry Miller
6 years 4 months ago

What gives you the idea I don’t want to live in a cave? Society won’t allow me to live as I want.

Society does have some advantages I enjoy, so it isn’t all bad.

Kyndal
Kyndal
2 years 4 months ago

This isn’t a “caveman” diet. Many modern hunter-gatherers eat nothing but plants and meat and they aren’t cavemen. I consider a diet high in meats and vegetables to be a traditional diet, or hunter-gatherer diet. “Caveman” diet is just a clever catch-all term that the layfolk can easily grasp.

trackback
8 years 8 months ago

[…] Mark’s: “So we find soy in its current circumstances, dissected by the health media, floundering, searching for a center long ago obscured, grasping for its authentic, legitimate role in nutritional balance.” […]

Migraineur
8 years 8 months ago

Did I say I wanted to eat like a caveman? 😉 I think I said I wanted to eat whole foods, including meat.

Brian A
Brian A
8 years 8 months ago

touche

“…Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on…”

Cindy Moore
8 years 8 months ago

Personally I detest the taste of soy. I’ve had edename and that’s not too bad, but soy nuts, tofu, foods like soy milk, etc taste horrible. I’m a bit nervous also about soy, and wish the medical industry would stop pushing it….I’ve read so many articles about how it’s essentially a “wonder food”.

I’m also quite intolerant to soy and many soy products. I have intestinal issues with soy….the more I eat the worse things get. I think there are more people intolerant too, but they don’t realize it.

Scott Kustes
8 years 8 months ago

Great article. One interesting thing to note is that the Japanese and Chinese really don’t eat all that much soy. Studies have shown it to be about 2 tbsp per day…that’s a condiment, not a food. Other foods such as pork and fish provide the bulk of the protein. In fact, until they learned how to ferment the soybeans to neutralize the antinutrients, soy was used as a cover crop to repair the soil, not as a food.

I wrote a bit more about soy awhile back here.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Modern Forager

Sonagi
Sonagi
8 years 8 months ago
One interesting thing to note is that the Japanese and Chinese really don’t eat all that much soy. Studies have shown it to be about 2 tbsp per day…that’s a condiment, not a food. Based on my longterm living experience in Asia, I’d say 2-4 tablespoons on average. At almost every meal, there is at least one dish flavored with soy sauce, and miso soups and tofu dishes are commonly eaten although not every day. In China, soy milk products are a common breakfast item and street snack. Beijingers are noted for their fondness of douzhi, a fermented soy milk… Read more »
Gillian
Gillian
8 years 8 months ago

My baby is allergic to dairy, eggs, and peanuts, and I have had to lean heavily on soymilk to get her the necessary protein, nutrients, and hydration. Because of the information I have received from articles like this (and my pediatrician), I have started giving her half ricemilk and half soymilk. But now I see that there are so many other options like almond milk and hazelnut milk, etc. What is the healthiest option? What is the best option? So many choices! It’s great, but overwhelming…

Sara
Sara
6 years 10 months ago

What’s wrong with breastmilk?

Jeremy
Jeremy
3 years 2 months ago

Breast milk is great of course, but babies don’t stay babies for ever. Breast milk is not an option for everyone (kids in day care for instance).

Denise
Denise
8 years 7 months ago

Thanks for this article. I detest milk and started drinking soy milk as an alternative. After reading that it inhibits the absorption of calcium though, I’m wondering if I should switch to something else. I’ve tried rice milk once before but it seemed too sweet. Anyone have any suggestions?

Thanks!

Janine
Janine
8 years 7 months ago

What about the health benefits- or detriments- of things like soy nuts, soy lecithin, or the chunks of pre-packaged in water tofu, or even the Mori-Nu silken tofu in the little box??

Ryan D
8 years 7 months ago

“Though Japanese women regularly eat significant portions of soy (in forms like tempeh, edamame, miso and tofu), they have only 1/5 of the breast cancer rate that Western women.”

Hhmmm, anyone here read the china study? Sounds spot on too me if you read between the lines.

Dana
Dana
8 years 7 months ago
Why do people look at, like, ONE food eaten by Chinese or Japanese people and decide that that’s why they get less cancer than we do? Are there not other significant differences between the Standard American Diet and traditional Chinese and Japanese fare? I can think of a few: (1) They eat less sugar; (2) They eat more vegetables. The sugar issue, in particular, is important: Cancer cells need more glucose than normal cells do. We didn’t get a lot of breast cancer HERE, even without the tofu, until we started eating huge quantities of starch (which is broken down… Read more »
trackback
8 years 7 months ago

Jack…

Here’s a very good authority site and articles…

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[…] weeks ago Mark offered the piece Scrutinizing Soy that mentioned he was unequivocally against soy formula. At the time he suggested the topic was a […]

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[…] convince you otherwise, we still encourage you to eat food and not food products. As we said in Scrutinizing Soy a while back, edamame, tempeh, traditional miso (in other words, foods closer to the source) are […]

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[…] Scrutinizing Soy […]

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[…] Scrutinizing Soy […]

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[…] Scrutinizing Soy […]

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[…] Scrutinizing Soy – Jan. 22 […]

danielle
danielle
7 years 8 days ago

Why is there Soy Protein Isolate in the Responsibly Slim shake formula? Seems to contradict everything you write about processed soy.

trackback

[…] another article on soy that I found […]

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[…] milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein powder), legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy & soy products, peanuts, green beans, peas), cereal grains & cereal grainlike seeds (e.g., corn, wheat, wheat […]

trackback

[…] milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein powder), legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy & soy products, peanuts, green beans, peas), cereal grains & cereal grainlike seeds (e.g., corn, wheat, wheat […]

trackback
6 years 5 months ago

[…] milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein powder), legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy & soy products, peanuts, green beans, peas), cereal grains & cereal grainlike seeds (e.g., corn, wheat, wheat […]

stephen
stephen
6 years 4 months ago

So Ive been considering purchasing Soy Isoflavone supplements. Would it be reasonable to begin taking these? I am fit, healthy, and have no health problems.

Laurel
Laurel
6 years 2 months ago

Keep in mind – not all beef contains exogenous hormones.

Yet one more reason to buy from family farms and the small producers that don’t advertise beyond word of mouth or small nickelnik type local classifieds.

trackback

[…] the problem; it’s estrogen dominance brought on by exogenous phytoestrogens (from food, like soy, bran, and other legumes) and xenoestrogens (from plastics, pesticides, herbicides, and other […]

trackback

[…] milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein powder), legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy & soy products, peanuts, green beans, peas), cereal grains & cereal grainlike seeds (e.g., corn, wheat, wheat […]

Michelle
Michelle
6 years 20 days ago

My daughter is allergic to cow’s milk proteins, so the allergist suggested soy milk. I had figured we’d be doing almond or rice milk (due to articles like this) but both he and my daughter’s regular pediatrician said soymilk.

Sigh.

So, I guess at least we buy the kind with calcium and DHA, since I can’t give her fish oil, but still. These articles are tough to read.

trackback

[…] milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, whey protein powder), legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy & soy products, peanuts, green beans, peas), cereal grains & cereal grainlike seeds (e.g., corn, wheat, wheat […]

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[…] Mark’s Daily Apple on soy… […]

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[…] soy is not fit for human consumption unless it is fermented. In its unfermented form, soy contains phytochemicals that are toxic (phytates, enzyme inhibitors […]

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[…] same sea water. Farmers don’t have to provide food. They’re not scattering corn and soy across the water, because it would be a waste. Shellfish, you see, are filter […]

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[…] that same sea water. Farmers don’t have to provide food. They’re not scattering corn and soy across the water, because it would be a waste. Shellfish, you see, are filter […]

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[…] Soy is another big topic. Read Mark’s 10 Things to Know about Tofu and Scrutinizing Soy. […]

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