The United States is the world’s largest producer of soybeans, although you wouldn’t know that from the American diet, which mostly takes in soy from soy sauce. But soy can serve as an alternative to meat or milk, create new organic inks and prevent certain kinds of cancer. Asians have known about these benefits for more than 5,000 years, and they eat it regularly as tofu, as a soup ingredient and in many other forms. Asian immigrants first planted soybeans in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Today, Americans are slowly getting used to the idea of drinking soy milk, substituting soy for meat and eating soy nuts along with their pretzels.
Studies from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) show that diet and lifestyle can reduce our risk of cancer by up to 70 percent. Eating soy, fruits, vegetables, legumes and minimally processed foods greatly reduces cancer risk because these foods are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The AICR says soy’s soluble fiber protects us from digestion-related colon and rectal cancer. Soy also helps maintain good health for women and men through its isoflavones, which may also provide protection from hormone-related cancers, like breast, uterine and prostate cancer.
A high intake of soy may not be a good idea for women who have been diagnosed with or who are at high risk for estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer, a type of tumor that depends on estrogen to grow. The tumor feeds on extra estrogen and is aggravated by these soy isoflavones, which are sometimes called “phytoestrogens’ because of the way they help regulate or increase estrogen levels.
Women seeking a natural approach to menopause are turning to soy to relieve mild to moderate symptoms. Studies at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center show soy’s protein helps reduce the hot flashes, irritability and sleep problems many menopausal women experience. For 25 years, certified nutritionist Alice Hanlon has incorporated soy into her own diet and exercise-filled regimen to help reduce and nearly eliminate her hot flashes. “When I eat tofu, I find it does seem to help,” says Hanlon. “My hot flashes aren’t as severe or as frequent.” But she emphasizes that other factors may be involved, like taking B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, vitamin E and whey protein powder, which has more amino acids than soy.
Sharon Meyer, Hanlon’s partner at Total Wellness Concepts in San Francisco and a certified nutritionist, explains the possible differences between using soy and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). “You are peaking between highs and lows of estrogen during the course of the day.” When a woman is put on HRT, sometimes the artificial replacement creates “higher highs and lower lows, resulting in more intense hot flashes.”
The chemical reaction of estrogen in HRT may put a woman at higher risk for cancer, but estrogen in plant-based foods can help prevent cancer. In her book, Estrogen the Natural Way, author Nina Shandler explains that there are three types of estrogen: estradiol, estrone and estriol, arranged from strongest to weakest. The longer the exposure to the two stronger estrogens (through earlier menstruation, later termination of menstruation and excess weight), says Shandler, the higher your risk for breast cancer. Doctors didn’t realize until recently that estrogen replacement pills, which use these two stronger estrogens, would aggravate the risk. Given these facts, many women are turning to natural ways to reduce hot flashes and stay healthy.
The GE Factor
In East Asia, soy is used more regularly and is less processed than in the United States. American soybean crops are often modified genetically, and they are also manufactured into processed foods like cereal and chips, raising questions about the possible elimination of vital nutrients and proteins.
People with allergies might suffer adverse reactions from eating genetically engineered (GE) foods. Additionally, antibiotics used in marking the genes in GE foods may create super-resistant bacteria and viruses that are unaffected by antibiotic treatment. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require labeling of GE foods. Some manufacturers of soy foods, such as White Wave, Lightlife and Vitasoy, have voluntarily begun to label their products as GE-free. However, even foods grown organically for many years have tested positive for genetic engineering due to cross-pollination.
Soy is not for everyone. It is an allergen for some people, so try eating small amounts of soy, such as one to two servings a week for about six weeks. Monitor how your sinuses and body react to the buildup of the bean’s chemicals. If you experience breast tenderness, excessive bloating, flatulence or bowel irregularity, you may be allergic to soy.
Aside from these warnings, Melanie Polk, registered dietician and director of Nutrition Education at the AICR, says, “Research on soy is a relatively new area. It does appear that soy is a health protector. It is reasonable to incorporate some soy into a mostly plant-based diet of vegetables, fruits, grains and beans.”
Making the Change
Still not convinced about the benefits of soy? It may help to know that soy can help protect the immune system and blood vessels, and that it can also help ward off heart attacks, strokes, osteoporosis, diabetes and kidney disease.
There are lots of ways to incorporate soy into your diet without sacrificing individual taste. Hanlon and Meyer suggest making smoothies. Blend a few ice cubes, fresh fruit and soy milk in a blender until smooth. (Frozen fruit may be used instead of ice cubes, but you may need extra milk or juice for consistency.) Hanlon and Meyer recommend only drinking a smoothie every other day so you don’t become soy intolerant.
For a meatier palate, there are tasty replacement recipes to ease the transition to soy. For example, you could start with soy nuts on a salad, or use soy crumbles in a taco. You might even try to use less meat by mixing soy with the meat, extending the quantity but not the risks. Substitute tofu for ricotta cheese or low-fat cream cheese in lasagna, casseroles or dips.
This recipe for miso and tahini topping from Total Wellness can be added to brown rice and vegetables: Take one tablespoon of miso, three tablespoons of tahini, juice from half a lemon, a small clove of crushed garlic and a little water. Blend the ingredients into a creamy paste. A thicker version is good on warm cornbread or pitas.
Textured soy protein and tempeh are excellent meat alternatives that can completely or partially replace ground meat to reduce intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Tempeh is one of the most easily digestible soyfoods and doesn’t require much cooking. It is ideal if you want something healthy and satisfying but quick. Just cut it into strips, add some soy sauce, and saute with onions, peppers and mushrooms. Then stuff it all into a pita.
MONIQUE N. GILBERT is a health advocate, recipe developer and author of Virtues of Soy: A Practical Health Guide and Cookbook (Universal Publishers). A.M. WILBORN is an editorial intern at E.