cookus interruptus- “To fu or not to fu”

Is soy good for you? bad? or indifferent?

Some viewers have written with concerns about eating soy products. There’s been a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of including soy in the diet. I’ve spent some time researching both sides of the argument so I could bring a balanced picture of the bean and its offspring to my classes and elsewhere.

Most people seem to get their nutritional information from the popular media, including television commercials. One problem is that they believe it. The second problem is that most Americans think that anything the media says is good for you to eat means you should not just eat it, but eat a whole lot of it; every day. So in the 90’s when the media began reporting scientific research showing health benefits from eating soy products, Americans hopped on the soy wagon. Hence not only the gulping of soy lattes, munching of soy-based candy bars (referred to as “energy bars”) and slicing of tofurkey at Thanksgiving, but the broad acceptance that anything with soy anything in it is good for you. It is no coincidence that the positive research touting soy as a health food emerged after government subsidies, to the tune of $14.2 billion from 1995-2006, created an abundance of cheap, genetically engineered soybeans.

Soybeans have some great things to brag about. They are a good vegetarian protein source, a natural source of lecithin, and are concentrated in essential fatty acids, including omega-3. They contain other hotly-debated compounds including phytoestrogens which may be helpful for menopausal hot flashes, not so good for ladies with a history of breast cancer.  It all depends on which studies you read.

Soybeans also are a difficult food for humans to digest. They contain more phytic acid than most grains or beans, which can affect mineral absorption. Some feel their natural enzyme inhibitors can block protein absorption. Kayla Daniels (in her book The Whole Soy Story) takes many more punches at the poor bean citing allergies, sexual dysfunction, adverse affects on hormone development during puberty, thyroid deficiencies, and retarded growth in children as symptoms of eating too much soy. Just to name a few. I agree with her that there’s a real downside to feeding infants processed soy formula, which isn’t really comparable nutritionally to live mother’s milk.

Soybean derivatives such as soy flour, textured soy protein, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and soy protein isolate certainly raise some concerns. These highly processed, fractionated soy products, a result of multi-stage chemical processes, have become a major ingredient in many pre-packaged or fast foods. Products made from soy derivatives such as cheese, margarine, burgers, hot dogs and bacon are a staple in most vegetarian and vegan diets. To me, these products do not seem any livelier or healthier than their animal based counterparts. Less so in most cases.

The traditional Japanese diet, through centuries of trial and error, found ways to use soybeans in a healthful manner. They did not invent or eat soy protein isolate. They mainly ate carefully crafted, fermented soy products in small amounts. The fermentation process deactivates the phytic acid and renders the bean much more digestible. Tamari, shoyu, miso and tempeh add flavor and digestibility to meals when served in small amounts.

Cultures that traditionally used soy products in their diets also included sea vegetables. If there’s any worry about mineral absorption or thyroid deficiencies from eating soy, the plethora of minerals, including iodine, in sea vegetables counters it.

Tamari and shoyu are soy sauces derived from a long aging process. Good brews are fermented at least three to six months. Some mass-market soy sauces are not fermented and use hydrolyzed vegetable protein, corn syrup, caramel color and MSG as additives to mimic the color and flavor of natural fermentation.

Tofu, though not a fermented soy product, is made from cooked and strained tofu_stage5soybeans that have had a coagulant added. Luckily the phytic acid of the bean is mostly found in the fiber which is discarded when tofu is made. Often tofu is served in dishes that include other fermented soy products such as tamari and miso, which further aid digestibility.

Is it a good bean or is it a bad bean? Where does eating soybeans fit into a well balanced diet? Enjoying small amounts of fermented soy products and fresh tofu, in a diet that occasionally includes sea vegetables (let’s have nori rolls!) is perfectly wonderful. Buy things to eat that are fresh and lively; foods that you could reproduce at home without any heavy machinery. Don’t revere soy or shun it. Simply pay attention to quality and quantity.

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Categories: check this out!, nutrition


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