Soy – Good or Bad?

Soy - Good or Bad

For years, soy was the go-to protein for those who wanted to avoid animal protein sources. Soy burgers were all the rage as well as tofu. Things have changed, however, and revealing new information has surfaced about soy. We’ve learned that much of it depends on how soy is prepared. Let’s look at the debate behind the benefits — and potential harm — of soy.


It’s a Bean

Anything titled “soy” comes from the soybean (or soya bean), and just like wheat products, soy products also vary widely. The soy legume is native to East Asia, and there’s evidence that humans began domesticating the plant as far back as 7000 B.C. In modern times, the main countries that grow soybeans are the United States, Brazil and Argentina.

Soybean meal is a popular and inexpensive source of protein, and it’s consumed worldwide. It’s also used extensively to feed animals. Soy products include textured vegetable protein, which can be found in many meat and dairy substitutes. The soybean is rich in phytic acid, dietary minerals and B vitamins. Soy milk and tofu are examples of nonfermented soybean products. Fermented soy foods include soy sauce, bean paste, natto and tempeh.

As we’ll see, all of these aspects of the soybean can have a potential impact on your health.

Healthy Soy

Many Asian countries, such as Japan, have a diet rich in soy. Due to the robust health of people living in those countries, the Western world adopted soy into their diet many years ago. However, the way the crop is grown and processed makes a big difference when it comes to health benefits.

For starters, soy grown organically — no chemical fertilizers or pesticides — carries the highest quality. Also, some experts warn that genetically modified foods may have negative effects on your digestive system, such as decreasing the probiotic benefit to your gut.

What Is Gut Flora?

Your gut flora is a diverse community of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. The gut flora is almost like a separate organ in your body made up entirely of bacteria. For instance, some of these organisms help your intestines process dietary fiber into short-chain fatty acids making them easier to absorb.

Intestinal bacteria also help you synthesize vitamin B and vitamin K and metabolize bile acids, sterols and xenobiotics. The gut flora function is so complex that it works almost like an extra endocrine organ. We see this even more clearly when the gut flora is disrupted since this may lead to inflammatory and autoimmune problems.

If your gut flora is disturbed, it could contribute to these disease processes:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Colon cancer
  • Anxiety, depression and autism
  • Arthritis

What Are Probiotics?

Since your gut has millions of microorganisms working in your favor, some scientists observed that eating bacteria might be beneficial. Now, before you turn up your nose, don’t forget that bacteria are normally found in yogurt and milk. Some of these bacteria, called probiotics, are believed to offer you a health advantage. The benefits of probiotics may include:

  • Strengthen immune function
  • Prevent urinary tract infection
  • Improved gut and bowel function
  • Decrease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
  • Reduce eczema symptoms
  • Reduce food poisoning

How does this all relate to soy? First of all, genetically modified sources (GMO) may decrease the probiotic benefit of soy. Plus, soy is most nutritious when it’s fermented. Not surprisingly, fermenting is a process similar to what happens when milk becomes yogurt. Fermented soy, such as natto, is rich in probiotics and vitamin K2. Even more, vitamin K2 may preserve your bones, keep brain cells healthy and help you heal from injury.

If the soy you consume is in the natto form, then, yes, it’s very good for you.


Other Great Sources of Probiotics

Natto isn’t the only source of probiotics. Consider these foods to boost your gut flora benefits:

  • Kefir: This yogurt-like fermented dairy product is good for those who are lactose-intolerant
  • Sauerkraut: The fermented cabbage is also rich in vitamin C, and may help you fight off the common cold
  • Kimchi: The spicy Korean version of sauerkraut
  • Coconut kefir: Made from coconuts and kefir grains fermented together

Other Soy Products

Unfortunately, the majority of soy products consumed in the Western world are not fermented. This includes soy milk and other products that use soy as a protein supplement (soy burgers). The problem with these foods is that they don’t offer the probiotic benefit of fermented soy. Plus, if they come from a non-organic source, the benefit is even less.

The other — and more serious — problem with most modern soy products is that they contain phytoestrogens. Your body recognizes these compounds as estrogen. For men, this could mean you end up having too much estrogen in your body, giving you female sex characteristics. For example, there have been reports of soy milk causing gynecomastia (breast development) in men.

For women, increased phytoestrogen intake may elevate your risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome and hormone imbalance.

What Are Some Alternatives to Soy?

One of the things that attract people to soy is that it’s a non-animal source of protein. Plus, it’s low in fat. However, unless you consume the fermented non-GMO form of soy, you may be exposing yourself to a health risk. Some excellent vegetable choices that you can substitute for soy are:

  • Coconut milk
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Black beans
  • Almonds
  • Brown rice

What About Tofu?

If you like Asian or Southeast Asian food, you’ve probably tried these white food blocks. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks.

However, tofu is not a fermented soy product. This means it may be high in harmful phytoestrogens, plus it’s typically made from GMO sources. Furthermore, tofu is especially rich in soy isoflavone genistein which can decrease thyroid hormone production and cause hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).

Fermenting is the Key

Tofu, edamame and soy milk are unfermented soy products. These should probably be avoided. Miso, natto, tempeh and tamari are fermented soy products. All soybeans (even organic, non-GMO ones) naturally contain potentially harmful phytoestrogens. Fermentation transforms regular soy products into healthy foods.

Why was Soy Considered to Be Healthy?

Years ago, soy was considered a wonder food. Low-fat, high-protein and available to the masses, soy was advertised as a solution to everything from world hunger to heart disease. Some blame aggressive agriculture industry marketing for increasing soy acceptance in our diets. Baby formula is a prime example. Parents who feed their infants soy-based milk might want to consider other alternatives.


Hidden Sources of Soy

Given that soy is so cheap and easy to work with, it has found its way into a wide range of food products. You might find soy in:

  • Breadcrumbs, cereals, pastries and crackers
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Imitation dairy food
  • Infant formula, nutrition supplements for adults and children
  • Meal replacements and frozen dinners
  • Meat products with fillers like frozen burgers
  • Nutrition supplements and vitamin pills
  • Sauces: shoyu, tamari, teriyaki and Worcestershire
  • Artificial fish and meat products: fake crab meat, imitation bacon bits, veggie burgers and patties
  • Stews and gravies

Surprising Source of Soy

Another potential source of soy might actually be chicken or beef. The reality is that most soy meal ends up as animal feed. This means that you could be eating meat from animals fed largely on a soy diet. Now, while this is not the same as directly eating soy products, some studies have revealed soy elements found in chicken that has been raised on a soy diet.

The United States Food & Drug Administration does not require any product labeling if livestock has been fed with soy. Perhaps the only way to avoid this potential soy source is by eating 100 percent grass-fed beef. Even if chicken is labeled organic or free-range, it still may be fed a soy diet. Don’t forget, eggs might be affected this way as well.

How About Soy Allergy?

Soy allergy is like any other food allergy. It could manifest itself as a rash, upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting or breathing problems. If you are identified as having a soy allergy, make sure you avoid the hidden sources of soy listed in this article.


Soy isn’t bad or good. The problem is how it’s grown or prepared. If you want to benefit from soy, make sure it’s from an organic, non-GMO and fermented source.

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