Saturday, September 15, 2012

To Soy or Not to Soy?

One of the debates I sometimes have with other food-conscious friends is about soy. Is it good for you or bad for you? On one hand, soy is high in protein, low in cholesterol, high in iron, phosphorus, and magnesium, vitamin B6, and fiber, usually calcium-enriched, and extremely versatile. On the other hand, there are arguments such as this one:

"Soybeans are also high in phytates, an organic acids which blocks the uptake of calcium, magnesium, iron, and especially zinc and contributes to widespread mineral deficiencies. In fact there are more phytates in soybeans than in any other grain, bean, or plant studied and these phytates are remarkably resistant to reduction techniques. Only a long period of fermentation will significantly reduce the phytate content of soybeans. The phytates and other anti-nutrients in soybeans are only partially deactivated during ordinary cooking and can produce gas, reduce protein digestion, and create chronic deficiencies in children."
To read this entire informative article, click here

If you look at traditional Asian diets which tend to use soy, they usually use either fermented soy, in the form of miso, tempeh, or tamari; or tofu, which is unfermented, but usually paired with sea vegetables such as seaweed, which effectively counteracts the anti-nutrition qualities listed above. Even the most passionate anti-soy articles I've come across seem to agree that fermented soy is fine, at least in moderation. The problem lies in two places, one obvious and one more insidious:

The obvious issue is those who take on a vegan diet and start replacing almost every food they used to eat with soy. Soy burgers, soy hot dogs, soy ice cream, soy cheese, soy milk... Most of these foods, aside from not meeting the aforementioned fermentation standards for maximum soy safety, are processed foods, where the original soybean has been transmogrified beyond recognition. Usually if there's that much science involved in any food, it's no longer that phenomenal for you.

The more insidious way that soy creeps into our diets is through processed food. Read the label of just about any food in a package-- bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, candy, nuts, TV dinner, whatever-- and I will bet the vast majority of them contain soy. Soybean oil, soy lecithin, soy protein isolate, soy flour-- these ingredients are totally ubiquitous in processed food. I would actually bet that as a vegan who occasionally eats soy junk food such as tofu hot dogs but besides that essentially buys NOTHING pre-packaged, I eat less soy than the average American omnivore who wouldn't know a brick of tofu if she tripped over it but eats mostly processed food. Additionally, if the adage that you are what you eat eats adheres, then those who consume meat, milk, and eggs are probably getting some soy residue, as it is routinely fed to livestock.

If you google "soy benefits," a zillion pages written by seemingly reputable sources (MDs, PhDs) pop up. If you google "soy dangers," an equal number of pages pop up. The same exact thing occurs if you replace the word "soy" in your search engine with the word "dairy." Why might this be? I suspect very strongly that it is because both of those foods are inextricably mixed up in politics, i.e. foods subsidized by the US government and foods distributed by industries which lobby in Washington. At best, both should be consumed in moderation only. I feel there is compelling enough evidence against dairy for me to eschew it from my diet completely, I also don't feel well physically when I eat it. This article here is one of hundreds I've read from a variety of sources which basically say the same thing about why dairy isn't good for you. The potential that the cows were mistreated and the possibility they were given hormones or antibiotics seals the deal for me: no milk in my kitchen. I choose to eat a small amount of soy because I don't feel bad from eating it and every once in a while, I really like a tofu hot dog. Let's face it, no one should be eating a "real" hot dog, made of parts of an animal most of us would prefer not to know about and ridden with salt, nitrates, and additives either. I don't look at the occasional (read-- less than once a month) tofu dog as a health food, nor would I start eating one every day.

I don't think that the potential hazards of soy are any reason at all to give up on a plant-based or 100% vegan diet. It doesn't seem that we really need dairy OR soy to eat well. There's yet to be a study I'm aware of warning us off of lentils or kale. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, and things made from these ingredients WITHOUT a bunch of additives seem to be our best bet for optimum health. And for those comfort foods we just can't live without, here are some suggestions:

Milk can be replaced with almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, coconut milk, or hazelnut milk.
Non-dairy ice cream can be made or obtained using any of those above-mentioned milks, fruit sorbet is also an option.
Raw cashews or macadamia nuts can be made into a host of delicious creams for desserts and garnishes.
Olive oil can be used in many recipes in place of butter, Earth Balance nondairy spread also offers a soy-free option.
Portabella mushrooms can be added to recipes to give that chewy, "meaty" texture often gained by adding soy products.
Veggie burgers can be made from beans, grains, and vegetables.
Seitan, or wheat gluten, while not a super healthy food, also makes a delicious meat substitute and is soy-free. It is often listed as "vegetarian duck" in Thai restaurants.
Daiya cheese, while also a processed food, is made from tapioca and is soy-free. It melts well in recipes.

Whatever your choices regarding soy, I think the lesson to be learned here is, as usual, avoid processed foods, and when possible, choose foods which don't have a label at all.

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