This weekend I was shopping at the local market. I got hungry and wanted a protein bar. I popped into a health food store which I know sells them. I was confronted with a floor to ceiling rack of bars. I stood reading the labels. Soy. Soy. Some weird grains and shit. Soy. Nuts and twigs. Soy. Carb-A-Lot. Soy. Soy. Soy. Can’t a woman get some plain whey any more? I left without buying anything. As we were leaving, I said to the friend who was with me, “Dammit, all they have is that soy crap!” She said, “Soy is the new hemp.”
In other words, soy is the new SuperIngredient in food products. It’s everywhere: soymilk, soy cream, soy cheese, soy nuts, soy chips, soy bars, tofurkey, soysauges, soyloney, probably soy freaking candies somewhere. Soy is supposedly good for women. Soy is the Messiah. Soy will save us from illness and existential trauma. Soy slices and dices. Soy is the new hemp, which was the new olive oil, which was the new oat bran, which was the new fat free.
But wait a minute. Soy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Soy contains phytoestrogens, plant chemicals that demonstrate the actions of estrogens in humans. This is why it used to be recommended that menopausal women take soy. However, messing with your hormones randomly and without a standardized dose can be dicey. When combined with other sources of estrogens like HRT or oral/injected contraceptives, the total load on the body can be significant. Soy has also been implicated in thyroid problems; it can exacerbate existing thyroid dysfunction symptoms, and trigger an unnoticed thyroid condition. Given that many people have an undiagnosed thyroid problem, this is significant indeed. The mechanism of soy’s action is apparently to inhibit or depress the synthesis of important thyroid hormones. The thyroid plays a major role in helping us maintain a healthy weight; if it goes out of whack, the body may rapidly deposit bodyfat.(Divi RL et al, 1997).
Soy isoflavones, taken in sufficient quantities, will stimulate breast growth in males (I’ve seen do-it-yourself breast growth in male-to-female transsexuals who used soy to do it). An interesting study from Germany looked at soy versus casein protein in rats; the rats who were fed the soy formula had a lower rate of energy expenditure, aka a slower metabolism (bear in mind, though, that humans aren’t rats). The research at this point remains tentative in its inferences, and it appears that moderate consumption of soy may have some benefits for some things, but there appears to be mounting evidence that overconsumption of soy can be detrimental.
Now, I’m not saying that you have one slice of tofu and immediately grow a goiter. The problem is the amount of soy consumed. If you push soy products into your gob in large quantities several times a week, you could be in for problems. If you have the occasional tofu hot pot at your favourite Szechuan restaurant, then you’re probably fine. Soy is not safe simply because it is natural, and it is not a cure for everything that ails you. We tend to clutch superstitiously at food fetishes, and get myopic in our desire to eat well. The point here is that we look to one food to be magical, and what we miss in this well-meaning endeavour is balance and moderation.
Soy will not save you from the boogeyman, so put the soy bacon back and jeez, have something that actually might taste good.
More links on possible dangers of soy: