Before the soybean was adapted into veggie burgers, bacon, milk and ice cream, Dr. T. Colin Campbell noted its benefits in the largest diet-related health study in history that would later become his seminal book, The China Study. Throughout rural China, Campbell's team found that people who ate traditional diets rich in fermented soy products like miso and tempeh, were significantly healthier compared with Westerners and their fast, fried, crispy food pursuits.
Unlike the Asians, who'd been eating soy sparingly for centuries (as a side or condiment to a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish), in true exploitative American fashion, we took the information about soy's benefits to the extreme. The nightly news touted its cholesterol-lowering properties and connections to reduced risk of breast cancer as manufacturers isolated and manipulated the little green bean into a million different iterations of "Now with Soy!" It didn't take long before we found out that too much soy can actually have negative health effects including disrupting hormones, allergies and digestive issues.
Then, we let Monsanto have at it.
More than 90 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is now genetically modified—and it is more ubiquitous than ever, despite what we now know about its risks. Soy protein, soy oil and more heavily processed soy ingredients including lecithin and flavorings make the soybean one of the most common foods in our diet. If you're a conventional meat, egg or dairy eater, the animals those foods come from are eating lots of soy. If you're a vegetarian veggie burger/not dog/faux nugget lover, chances are they're all made with GMO soy.
All that being said—Campbell was on the money about the benefits of certain soy products in moderation, certainly the fermented ones, which are easier for our digestion. But, which ones? What soy is safe to eat?
Every body reacts differently to food. Many people have soy allergies or sensitivities thanks not only to the genetic modification, but the proliferation and over-exposure. But generally speaking, if you're looking to add a moderate amount of soy to your diet, these are the safest soy products in the U.S.:
Eden Foods: A pioneer in the natural foods industry, if you want to spell food integrity, it's: E-D-E-N. They distribute a wide variety of foods including BPA-free canned beans, organic soy sauce, tamari and shoyu made in traditional Japanese methods. Edensoy was one of the first organic soymilk brands on the market and no one has matched their delicious malty flavor yet. It is also one of the only nondairy beverages on the market (organic or otherwise) that does not contain gelling agents like carrageenan, which has been linked to digestive disorders and certain cancers. Eden is committed to sourcing organic food from local suppliers and they do not cut corners. You get what you pay for and every Eden product is worth the spend.
Wildwood: You can find this brand in most health food stores or Whole Foods. The products adhere to strict standards that include always using organic soybeans that are non-GMO, non-irradiated, and that do not contain artificial preservatives, chemically manufactured additives, artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and no hydrogenated oils. For that tofu fix, check out their organic, high protein sprouted tofu options. The Southwest veggie burger is pretty tasty, too.
Mitoku: This Japanese company makes traditional fermented miso paste that is always GMO-free and often organic. With a motto "Food is Medicine," the company puts its commitment to quality right where you can taste it. You can also find other Japanese staples including soy sauce and dried tofu available from Mitoku.
Tofurky: Nobody does mock meat like Turtle Island founder, Seth Tibbott. And good thing, because the Tofurky brand of products is one of the only processed soy food brands that uses organic and non-GMO soy. Some items are way lengthier in the ingredients list than they need to be, but the Tofurky Feast is as worthy a holiday indulgence as it gets for vegetarians. They make a delicious tempeh (fermented bean cakes), and the Tofurky Italian sausage will definitely earn you points with the most stubborn meat-eaters. Like a friend recently told me—mock meats are the best AND the worst at the same time. They typically taste pretty amazing and satisfy a meaty craving—but they're highly processed, almost always contain soy and genetically modified ingredients along with excessive flavoring and preservative agents. So it's generally best to avoid them, save those very special occasions, like Thanksgiving. Make your own veggie burgers from beans or lentils instead.
There are quite a few brands on the Non-GMO Project website that have been certified as GMO-free, including some soy products. You can find the complete list here.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger