Tofu or Not Tofu: Should We Still Eat Soy?

It was the poster child for health foodies, vegans and the lactose intolerant. But soymilk (and all soy products) has fallen from grace despite enjoying thousands of years as a healthy, versatile and pretty darn tasty staple food. What happened to soy?

Widely used throughout Asia, soy products like miso, natto, tempeh and tofu provided sustenance and variety. Researchers even linked the Japanese longevity (they have the longest lifespan in the world) to their regular consumption of soy products. The isoflavones found in soy have been linked to cancer prevention, hormone regulation (especially for menopausal women), reduced cholesterol levels and improved heart health. For those allergic to or eschewing dairy products, soy was the indisputable go-to product—everything from ice cream, cheese, yogurts and milk could be extracted from the tiny bean.

As the natural products industry exploded over the last two decades, so did the soybean. No longer just eaten fermented and in small amounts as the Japanese and Chinese had for centuries, it was now found in chips, cookies, energy bars, chocolates, even as a peanut butter substitute. An allergen in its own right (along with nuts, dairy, wheat, corn, seafood and eggs, it’s one of the most common food allergies), soy has other negative health effects. Too much of soy’s plant estrogens can put women at risk for cancer, even despite its cancer-preventing effects. It can adversely affect men’s hormone levels too, leading to drops in testosterone. Isolated soy protein, which is found in a wide range of products from mock meats and energy bars to protein shakes, is often extracted with hexane—a synthetic, petroleum-based solvent and pollutant classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And then, there’s Monsanto.

Soybeans are a staple in the factory farm industry as feed for livestock. In 1995, Monsanto introduced its genetically modified Roundup Ready soy; by 1997 less than ten percent of all soy grown in the U.S. was genetically modified. Today, it’s 93 percent. The demand for GM soy has spread to countries like Brazil, where vast swaths of ancient Amazonian rainforest have been razed for soy production. (Brazil’s genetically modified crops have outpaced conventional growth.)

Soy is found in a number of processed foods as an emulsifier (lecithin) and as a flavoring, making it almost impossible to avoid entirely. But discerning consumers who don’t want to eliminate it completely opt on occasion for organic, non-GMO soy and avoid the GMO soy protein isolates.

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Image: FotoosVanRobin