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Anyone following the news about soy and its components like isoflavones (phytoestrogens) is probably confused. Reports about soy protein and/or isoflavones make claims that they: Lower cholesterol. May accelerate brain aging. May fight cancer. May aggravate or feed certain cancers. Alleviate menopausal symptoms and help prevent osteoporosis. Disrupt hormones leading to problems like infertility and contribute to osteoporosis. Can lead to underactive thyroid. Cause deficits of vitamin D, and stress the liver. Since 1999 the FDA has allowed ‘heart healthy' label claims on certain soy products; government nutrition guidelines recommend ‘fortified' soy products as good sources of calcium. Some studies are "seriously flawed." Corporations with vested interests frequently influence the slant of study reports both pro and con. Some scientists are concerned about the safety of soy. What should a person believe?
Asians have used soy extensively for centuries, though the traditional soybean was very different from the soybean known today. Studies from 1975 to 1990 show soy foods have been minor sources of protein in Japanese and Chinese diets; major sources are meats, poultry, fish, and eggs. Total legume consumption averaged 13 grams a day, if two-thirds was soy, an average of about 2 teaspoons were consumed each day. With all the new hoopla about soy, people may think they should make soy a large part of their diets to replace animal foods, that eating as much soy as possible is good for their health, and that soy supplements promote well-being. i
Among the many substances in soy are "phytoestrogens," particularly isoflavones such as genistein and daidzein. Isoflavone compounds require intestinal bacteria for their bioavailability, and absorption is limited -- uptake decreases at doses exceeding 0.5 mg/kg body weight. So there is probably "no advantage to fortifying foods with high levels of isoflavones as appears the current trend by the food industry."
There are many phytoestrogens in other foods, including lignans found in some herbs, grains, and seeds (notably flaxseed), legumes, fruits, and vegetables; and coumestrol found in alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, and red clover. Actually, phytoestrogens are found in more than 300 foods and herbs, including apples, pears, plums, bananas, cantaloupe, watermelon, berries, carrots, broccoli, oats, olive oil, whole grains, rice, potatoes, tea, coffee, red clover, licorice, Asian ginseng, and sunflower seeds. Nuts, pinto beans, mung beans, kidney beans, lentils, and split peas contain good quantities of genistein and daidzein. Many varieties of beans contain as much or more genistein as does soy including yellow split peas, lima beans, and red kidney beans. Sprouts have the highest amount of isoflavones; particularly in the small rootlets. Yet soy gets the publicity.
Evidently, the soy industry needs a market for the surplus of soy protein isolate (SPI), a by-product of soy-oil production. Technicians have developed a multitude of palatable products from the bland, unappetizing high-protein "slush" remaining after oil is pressed from soybeans. The use of vegetable oil in processed convenience foods has greatly raised soy production from 18.9 million acres in 1954 to 72 million acres in 1998. SPI now provides the basis of a $1.6 billion market of "soy" foods.
Phytoestrogens in soy are supposed to replenish an aging body's declining estrogen levels, relieve menopausal symptoms, decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer and osteoporosis, and more. "At least that's the theory." Almost all the research on isolated isoflavones has been done in test tubes or on animals, yielding conflicting results, speculation, and more theories. "But no one knows how these animal and test tube studies relate to humans." The effects of isolated and concentrated isoflavones "remain unclear." Soy foods contain relatively low levels of isoflavones per serving. But supplements contain variable amounts of isoflavones and this is a concern. No one knows how much may be "too much," creating imbalances or harm. Phytoestrogen pills and capsules are isolated chemicals, and "nature did not intend for them to be taken as isolated substances, in man-made concentrations." Phytoestrogens are plant chemicals, not human hormones. Some scientists even object to calling isoflavones ‘phytoestrogens.' Estrogens are steroid hormones; phytoestrogens are nonsteroidal in chemical structure. In test tubes they can bind to estrogen receptors, "as do many substances." Genistein sits in the estrogen receptor complex in a manner "that is almost identical to that of raloxifene," (the drug, Evista, used to treat osteoporosis), "and not like estradiol," (estrogen produced by women). (Emphasis added) Natural components of plants may serve as human hormone precursors or modulators but not as human hormones. Plant hormones have been consumed by humans for millennia. Natural estrogens, synthetic estrogens, xenoestrogens, and phytoestrogens "are not comparable in potency or biological activity." Foods that support hormonal balance in the body do not work the same way as drugs or hormones. They simply provide nutrition or fuel for billions of cells. The body then produces needed hormones.
Whole foods contain a multitude of different "active ingredients" working together synergistically. Many studies find that whole foods have beneficial effects whereas separated substances or manufactured duplicates do not "work" and often have detrimental effects. Isolated soy isoflavones are no exception. Besides, other components of soy, "independently or together with isoflavones," may account for "the hypothesized health benefits of soy." Whole foods, "with their exquisite combinations of interactive ingredients," work to balance and nourish the body on a multitude of levels simultaneously. Various foods and herbs will act in slightly different ways to help balance and support the endocrine system. Biochemical individuality means that the foods and herbs may have various degrees of benefits for various individuals. Each person needs to determine what works best for him or her.
The concentrations of isoflavones genistein and daidzein in the blood plasma may increase with high consumption of soy-based foods, but this does not predict a biological outcome. The biological activity of isoflavones depends on the form in which they are present, the person's nutritional and hormonal status, and how they are metabolized. Isoflavones exist in free and conjugated (joined with another compound) forms in the body. "The biological activity of these conjugates has not been reported, but it seems likely that they are of low or negligible activity compared with the parent molecules and would also be more rapidly excreted." Besides, natural isoflavones are poorly absorbed and fermentation metabolizes them into other forms. Isoflavones in whole food would apparently be safe. But adverse reactions have been reported when soy isolates are excessively consumed.
Professor Cesare Sirtori reasons that "saying" phytoestrogens are responsible for lower breast cancer or cardiovascular risks in Oriental people are "superficial." One could similarly argue that phytoestrogens might account for the increased rate of gastrointestinal cancers found in the same peoples. "To single out putative beneficial or harmful roles of nutrients within the complex array of dietary and life habits, culture and genetics seems somewhat imprudent..."
"Americans tend to think that more is better, but with isoflavones, that may not be true," explains Gregory Burke of Wake Forest University. Following the advice on some supplement bottles, a person could take as much as 160 mg of purified isoflavones, more than he or she could get in a diet containing soy foods. "We have no idea whether levels that high are safe." Purified isoflavones do not seem to create heart or any other benefits. With the exception of cholesterol reduction, the attributed health benefits of soy foods and isoflavones are "still speculative." ii
CHOLESTEROL AND SOY
In October 1999 the FDA authorized the use of a health claim for soy protein, stipulating that 25 grams of soy protein per day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Soy foods with at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving can make this claim. The rationale is that Asians consume about 25 grams of soy protein per day and Asians have low rates of heart disease. A study of Japanese people in 1998 found there was a huge individual variation in consumption of soy products, but the average consumption of soy products was about 54 grams a day for women and 64 grams for men. The total amount of soy protein from these foods averaged only 7 to 8 grams, not 25 grams! Estimates of intakes by Chinese adults are similar, while Indonesians probably ingest higher levels due to the large quantities of tofu and tempeh consumed. However, there is wide variability in isoflavones content of tempeh and tofu. Studies in the US have found that batches of soy protein produced for the food industry varied over a three-year period by up to 400% in isoflavones content. So no one can "say" if any particular amount of soy, soy protein, or isoflavones has any specific effect.
In their ‘heart-healthy' approval process, the FDA relied largely on a 1995 meta-analysis led by Dr. James Anderson and sponsored by Soy Protein International. There is some criticism of the use of meta-analysis (review and summary of results of many studies) due to faulty assumptions and indulgence in "creative accounting" that occur. Especially when research is funded by a company like Soy Protein International, there is a temptation to omit studies that would prevent the desired conclusions. Dr. Anderson left out eight studies and analyzed 29. The report suggested that people with cholesterol levels higher than 250 mg/dl would experience a "significant" reduction of 7% to 20% in serum cholesterol levels if they used soy protein instead of animal protein. Cholesterol reduction was insignificant for people with cholesterol levels lower than 250 mg/dl. This is consistent with most other foods that help lower high cholesterol levels - those who need reductions the most experience the greatest changes. Those who do not need reductions see little if any change. However, many of the studies used soy protein isolates, not a whole food. There are still difficulties.
Obviously, for most people, "giving up steak and eating vegeburgers instead will not bring blood cholesterol levels down." According to Ronald M. Krauss, MD, of the Molecular Medical Research Program, research connecting soy to lowered cholesterol levels is "incredibly immature." In 1998 the FDA rewrote the soy health-claim petition to remove any reference to phytoestrogens and substitute soy protein. One reason may have been the number of documents submitted by researchers, some employed by the US government, indicating isolated isoflavones are toxic.
How does soy protein lower cholesterol? The "mechanism" is "not clear." It may affect "cholesterol absorption, bile acid absorption, the insulin-glucagon ratio, serum thyroxine levels, and hepatic LDL receptor activity." Some researchers say soy protein "can alter cholesterol metabolism in the liver," reducing the production of cholesterol. If this is true, then large amounts of soy protein isolates could be detrimental to health for some. Blood levels of cholesterol may decrease, but not due to improved fat metabolism. Altered cholesterol metabolism may disrupt hormone balance. All steroid hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisone are made from cholesterol. Disruption of thyroxine levels could push someone with borderline thyroid problems into hypothyroidism or it may inhibit absorption of thyroid medication. Reduction of bile acid absorption may affect digestion and use of fats. An effect on the insulin-glucagon ratio could disrupt blood sugar balance. The brain, spinal cord, nerves, adrenals, kidneys, mucous membranes, sex glands, cell membranes, and the liver itself may not receive what is needed for optimal function. Is this another problem spurred by human manipulation of natural foods? iii
Some of the controversy about soy involves its content of phytates, trypsin inhibitors, and other enzyme inhibitors. Trypsin inhibitors can block enzymes needed for protein digestion, allowing fermentation and gas production to ensue. Many, but not all, trypsin inhibitors are destroyed in processing. Soy also contains hemagglutinin, a clot promoting substance that causes red blood cells to clump together and prevent proper absorption of oxygen for distribution to cells. Fermentation deactivates trypsin inhibitors and hemagglutinin, but "precipitation and cooking do not." Levels are reduced but not eliminated; "noticeable activity can still be present." Most soy foods on the market retain 5 to 20% of the trypsin inhibitor activity of raw soybeans. The phytate content in soybeans -- higher than other legumes or grains -- may block uptake of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron. A protein-related portion in soy also inhibits mineral absorption. The mineral blocking effect of phytates is reduced when soy is eaten with meat or fish, the way Asians consume soy products. But many people in the US are replacing meat or fish with soy. Phytates are greatly reduced when soy is properly fermented as in tempeh, miso or traditional soy sauce. But soy's phytates are so strong that many survive cooking and other processing methods. Soy is high in proteinase inhibitors. Proteinase is a proteolytic enzyme, hastening protein breakdown. "All the possible effects of proteinase inhibitors are not fully understood."
Enzyme-inhibiting trypsin, hemagglutinin, and phytates exist in all seeds, including legumes. Research by Bargyla Rateaver, Ph.D., yielded these findings on soybeans: During later stages of seed development, the plant sends all the minerals allotted to the seed to its outer tissues for storage so when the seed is about to germinate and absorbs water, the minerals will be released into the water for use by the forming rootlet. The seed coat is so hard because the minerals are carefully embedded in the seed surface tissues. Phytic acid molecules have 12 bonds with which they can bond to mineral atoms. "This is a very unusually large number of bonds for a plant molecule to have." It is like 12 hands grabbing onto minerals, holding them very tightly. Only when the seed is about to germinate, needing to utilize minerals and absorb water, a special releasing enzyme - phytase -- is made to "wriggle" the minerals away from those 12 hoarding phytic-acid hands, freeing them.
To activate phytase and begin germination, soybeans should first be soaked in water for 8 hours, that water poured off, and two more 8-hour soak periods performed - a total of 24 hours -- before the beans are cooked in a fourth amount of fresh water. Some minerals are lost, but the soybeans become digestible. Cooking should be at a low temperature for a long time to maintain as much nutritional value as possible. Phytic acid is loaded with an extraordinarily large number of minerals that only the phytase enzyme can release. Cooking and processing soybeans before the phytase enzyme is released binds up those minerals. And protein value is drastically reduced with high temperatures. "It is only long soaking in cook water with attendant enzyme formation that releases the minerals." Dr. Royal Lee thought soybeans could be useful as food, but "only after certain precautions have been taken." He described the exact same soaking procedure as does Dr. Rateaver and refers to advantages of fermentation. He used citations showing that when neither of these procedures is followed, toxic reactions can occur. Soy must be specially prepared before it can be eaten; otherwise, it can create gastrointestinal and other problems. Although modern food processing methods may reduce enzyme inhibitors, the same processing denatures the protein and destroys much of the nutrition in the soy. Most soy "foods" (including protein powders) are made from soy protein isolate, not whole soy. This processed protein is made in an "industrial strength facility" where tons of soybeans are mixed in an alkaline solution to remove fiber. The slurry is then precipitated and separated by an acid wash, neutralized with another alkaline bath. These processes take place in aluminum tanks. During the acid wash, aluminum leaches into the soy food. After the soy is neutralized, the precipitated curds are spray-dried at high temperatures to produce the protein powder. To make textured vegetable protein (soy flour compressed to change the structure of the protein fibers to resemble meat texture), very high pressure and temperature extrusion processes are used. Nevertheless, some trypsin inhibitor remains, varying by batch. The soy product can hardly be viewed as a high quality protein food since the protein is denatured. Other processing by-products are toxins: nitrates and nitrosamines (considered carcinogens), and lysinoalanine. There is "no clear record" indicating that these toxins are removed. Artificial flavorings, especially MSG, must be added to soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein to cover up the "beany" flavor and give it a palatable flavor. iv
GRAS and GENETIC MODIFICATION
The FDA regards soy protein isolate as a food additive that is "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). Well, actually, "FDA has not affirmed that it's GRAS, but that doesn't mean that it isn't GRAS," says FDA's Linda Kahl. All food additives not in common use prior to 1958 must have GRAS status. Reexamination of substances being used and believed to be GRAS was started in 1972. Soy protein was not used in food until 1959 and was not really in common use in the early 1970s, so it was not eligible to be grandfathered in for GRAS status. The scientific literature up to 1974 showed there were many "antinutrients" in factory-produced soy protein, including trypsin inhibitors, phytic acid, and genistein. The FDA dismissed any discussion of adverse impacts by stating that "adequate processing" was important to remove them. Genistein could be removed with an alcohol wash but it was an expensive procedure usually avoided by manufacturers. Trypsin inhibitors could be removed with long periods of heat and pressure, but there have been no specific requirements imposed. The FDA was more concerned about toxins formed during processing, specifically nitrites and lysinoalanine. Even at low levels of consumption (averaging one-third of a gram per day), the presence of these toxins was considered too great a threat to public health to allow GRAS status. So safety specifications and monitoring procedures were called for before GRAS status could be granted. These were never performed. To date, use of soy protein is codified as GRAS only for limited industrial use as a cardboard binder. Soy protein is supposed to be subject to premarket approval procedures each time manufacturers intend to use it as food or add it to food. Yet, for example, soy protein in infant formula was introduced in the early 1960s as a new product with no history of use. Premarket approval was required, but was not and still has not been granted. Promotion of soy products has been backed by Monsanto, Cargil, and Dupont, all agribusiness giants. Soy is the number two US agricultural commodity (after corn) and is increasingly genetically modified. In 2000, American farmers planted Roundup Ready Soy (RRS), genetically engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup Ultra herbicide, on over 55% of the soy acreage. Being resistant to this powerful toxic herbicide, farmers can spray more of it on their crops with higher levels of toxins in the harvested product. Recent studies have shown that sprayed soybean crops have an elevated phytoestrogen level. The synergistic effect of these phytoestrogens is unknown. It is estimated that 60 to 70% of all processed foods may contain biotech soy or corn. The FDA does not require labeling and maintains that genetically-modified foods are safe. Jeanne Merrill of Greenpeace says the public is being used as guinea pigs, as "crash test dummies." More than 200 companies are using Monsanto's gene technology to produce more than 1,000 varieties of RRS. Thus, most US soy comes from seed in which the genes have been "mangled" by humans, heavily contaminated with carcinogenic herbicide, and made into an "unnatural chalk paste for mass consumption." The moral of the story, according to Dr. Sherry Rogers, is to "eat as many unprocessed foods as possible and avoid the junk that comes from a factory or is touted by industry as indispensably healthful." v
FOOD OR FOE?
Although it seems difficult to get a clear picture about the use of soy as food, a few things shed light. Some people do not tolerate soy well. It is a frequent cause of food allergy or sensitivity. Yet, is the problem soy or altered, deformed, incomplete, contaminated soy? Likely the latter.
Most soy-based products on the market today are certainly not "natural" foods. They have been produced in factories at high temperatures and pressures with the use of a number of chemicals. Soybeans are grown on huge corporate farms, most of which use synthetic fertilizers, genetically altered seeds and very toxic pesticides. Soy is promoted as a wonder food although it is usually drastically altered into a denatured, processed portion of the real thing. Products based on isolated soy protein are completely new to the human diet - a foreign entity. In Asia, soy was traditionally used in small, properly prepared amounts, often in a fermented form. Soy did not replace animal foods like meats, poultry, seafood, or eggs. It was consumed with such foods. The diet provided good support for the thyroid gland with fish, shellfish, seaweeds, and unrefined salt. Soy was not used to feed infants. Buffalo milk, cows' milk, or mares' milk was given to babies whose mothers were unable to nurse.
Researchers frequently caution that, though there is a lot of talk about soy, there is not a lot of convincing evidence about its benefits, particularly when isolated soy protein (ISP) or isolated and purified isoflavones like genistein are concerned. ISP is now in almost two-thirds of processed "foods." A high dependency on refined foods with a high concentration of soy derivatives may carry health risks. People are advised not to megadose - consuming more than 60 grams of soy protein a day, such as by mixing more than five or six scoops of soy protein powder into smoothies. "At that dose it's like a drug, and we're just not sure about the long-term effects, says Lee-Jane Lu, University of Texas, Galveston.
If soy is going to be used, it should be whole soy, properly prepared by several soakings and/or fermented. Whole soy foods should not be a mainstay, but an accessory in the diet, certainly not a substitute for nutritious animal and vegetable foods. Other legumes can provide similar or more nutritional benefits with less soaking and preparation. There are other forms of protein than soy even for vegetarian diets. Soy isolates are not food. The structure of the protein has been destroyed and parts have been removed so the natural synergistic balance has been ruined. Isolated phytoestrogens act as drugs, not as food, with pharmacological effects. John Henkel of the FDA, astutely explains that "all foods, including soy, are complex collections of chemicals that can be beneficial for many people in many situations, but can be harmful to some people when used inappropriately." In the US, soy is most often used inappropriately. After soy was introduced to the U.S. around 1854, commercial interest was aroused by the bean's high content of oil (around 20%). Soy oil was first used industrially, in paints, varnishes, and soaps. "It is highly unsaturated and very unstable, subject to oxidation and off-flavors, and had to await the invention of hydrogenation before it could be used in foods." Hydrogenation changes the natural cis fatty-acid configuration into a toxic trans fat linked to heart disease and other ills, perhaps even diabetes. Soy margarine replaced butter for most people during World War II. Nowadays refined soy oil is used in many processed foods. With all the leftover soy mush from commercial soy extraction and the high protein content of the soybean (higher than other legumes), it began to be pushed as a food. Most soy "foods" do not contain whole soy. When whole soy is used, it is often not properly soaked or fermented. Traditional Asian fermented soy foods have been commercialized. For example, soy sauce (tamari, shoyu, common soy sauce) is traditionally made from a soybean base, and fermented for long periods (from six months to several years). It supplies some free amino acids and is loaded with enzymes such as pronases which assist the breakdown and digestion of proteins. Commercial soy sauces are literally made overnight by breaking down the soybeans chemically and mixing with caramel coloring, salt, corn syrup, water and usually a preservative. Commercial shoyu is made from defatted soy meal, the fermentation process artificially accelerated by temperature control, and it can contain preservatives and other additives.
Soy milk is processed and is not a good source of calcium - many are calcium "fortified." However, the bioavailability of the calcium is low, so calcium-fortified soy milk is not considered a really good calcium source. Tempeh is made from cooked, split, fermented soybeans bound together with a mycelium yeast (Rhizopus oligosporus), which makes the soy easier to digest and provides many valuable nutrients including vitamin B12. Because tempeh is a whole, fermented food, it is more beneficial to health than the precipitated, refined tofu. Modern mass-produced tempeh contains no B12 at all since it is produced in large batches in machines and facilities designed to be easily cleaned (bacteria rich in B12 thrives in less ‘antiseptic' conditions). Some companies inoculate tempeh with bacteria that produce the vitamin, but it is still not the same as the original.
Miso is another fermented food made by adding an enzyme culture to a base of cooked soybeans and any number of grains. After aging, the enzymes have reduced the proteins, starches, and fats into amino acids, simple sugars, and fatty acids, easy to digest and use. It is rich in minerals and vitamins, including B12. But mass produced "white" miso is made with white rice, aged no more than three months, and is complete with chemical preservatives. Most miso available in the US is pasteurized, destroying beneficial microorganisms and enzymes, making many nutrients unavailable to the biochemistry. It is usually packed in soft plastic containers and absorbs toxins from them.
The story is the same for most other traditional soy products. Commercialization alters structure, functions, and content. Many popular soy "foods" are actually byproducts of soy oil extraction. The highly refined oil is made into margarine, shortening, salad oils, and cooking oils, and put into numerous processed foods.
Soybeans can be a useful legume when properly prepared and used in small amounts as part of a diet of whole, natural foods. Soy has been promoted as a miracle food, but this claim does not seem to be justified by the evidence. On the other hand, soy is not a horrible, poisonous food in itself. The trouble is the way it is prepared, processed, refined, fractionated, and mass produced so that it is not a whole, balanced food. Nature provides a multiplicity of substances in foods that are delicately balanced and interconnected. Disruption of this complex intertwined matrix can result in deficiencies, imbalances, and perhaps toxicity.
So-called "soy foods" (refined, processed, made with isolates) should essentially be eliminated from the diet. Exceptions are adequately presoaked whole beans or high-quality, properly fermented items like real soy sauce, miso, and tempeh which can be tasty and useful in small amounts. But these are not readily available and must be sought out. Soy is not highly essential. It is only highly promoted. It is not a substitute for other foods such as meats. It is not a medicine or hormone. It can be a fine addition to a good diet, but dependency on soybean derivatives in processed foods is not the way. Soy is neither a miracle nor a monster. It has simply been misrepresented, mistreated, misused, and overused. As with soy many other things, humans need to stop interfering and let it be. vi
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Originally published as an issue of Nutrition News and Views, reproduced with permission by the author, Judith A. DeCava, CNC, LNC