Rant 4 October 2002: Soy is the new hemp

October 1st, 2002  |  Published in 2002 rants  |  15 Comments

This weekend I was shopping at the local market. I got hungry and wanted a protein bar.

genisoy-soy-protein-bars-195569-MEDIUMI 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 “Super Ingredient” 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 act like estrogens in humans. This is why some people tell menopausal women to take soy.

smokey-bacon-tempehHowever, 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, or xenoestrogens from environmental chemicals,that’s a crapton of estrogenic molecules floating around in your body.

Soy has been implicated in thyroid problems. It can exacerbate existing thyroid dysfunction symptoms, and trigger an unnoticed thyroid condition. Given that many people, especially women, have an undiagnosed and/or subclinical thyroid problem, this is significant indeed.

Soy can inhibit or depress the synthesis of important thyroid hormones. The thyroid plays a major role in helping us maintain a healthy weight and body composition. If it goes out of whack, you can start piling on body fat and losing lean mass.

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).

Soy contains antinutrients (substances that interfere with the digestion or absorption of other things, such as minerals or proteins). These include protease inhibitors (stuff that blocks proper protein breakdown) and lectins (plant proteins that can cause intestinal damage).

Soy is one of the top food intolerances or allergens. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) includes soy in its list of the 8 most significant food allergens. Soy intolerance — with milder symptoms such as stomach upset, skin issues, etc. — is subtler but still relatively common.

Moderate consumption of soy, particularly traditionally prepared forms of fermented soy (such as natto) may have some benefits for some things in some people, 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 — especially processed 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.

We look to one food to be magical.

In this well-meaning endeavour, we miss 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.



  1. Mushroom says:

    February 26th, 2009at 8:07 pm(#)

    I don’t disagree with you, but as a vegan I find it hard to find quick, convenient sources of protein to supplement meals with. Do you happen to know of any vegan protein powders that aren’t soy-based?

    Also–I love your site. Been using it as a reference for years.

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    February 26th, 2009at 8:18 pm(#)

    Two types are good: hemp and brown rice protein. There is also a vegan protein powder called Vega, which as far as I know contains no soy, but because it uses bean and pea protein, can generate some interesting gastric symptoms.

  3. Mushroom says:

    February 27th, 2009at 4:36 pm(#)

    Thanks a lot for the quick response! I’ll check ‘em out.

  4. HalcyonNwar says:

    February 28th, 2009at 12:23 am(#)

    I am also a vegan, and I was going to ask the same question. I have a hard time keeping my protein up unless I do the powders. I really like gemma pea protein. I bought mine of trueprotein.com but I think they sell it a lot of places. It blends better than hemp I find. I also mixed it 70-30 with rice protein, makes it a little easier to handle.

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    February 28th, 2009at 6:29 am(#)

    Also worth mentioning — fermented soy. Fermentation chemically converts much of the antinutrients in foods such as soy. Thus, tempeh, which is bacterially fermented, is a good option for folks who still wish to consume soy. It cuts nicely into protein bar sizes too! One serving of straight tempeh (not a blended type with grains) has around 250 calories and 22 g of protein, which is more or less comparable to the same portion size of chicken.

  6. Diana says:

    December 5th, 2009at 6:37 pm(#)

    I really have to question your constant negativity about soy. As a Chinese person, I enthusiastically agree with your hatred of soy-in-everything. And I understand that _in large quantities_ (such as the quantities a person may obtain if they are trying to cram soy into every single aspect of their food) soy can have negative hormonal side effects. But really? Frackin’ really? That means soy is bad? And only miso and tempeh are good? Eating a tofu stirfry is Verboten because it’ll jack your estrogen levels up? I hate to sound like a cop-out, but if you look at China, Japan and Korea, they’ve been eating tofu and unfermented soy for millennia on end. It’s a major protein source for them instead of meat, like in the West. It’s worked for them so far, I think.

    So to sum up- overdosing on soy is bad, I understand. But I really think that taking the example of people who try to cram as much soy into their diets as possible and then painting all unfermented soy with the “this is bad for you and will mess up your system” brush is just not a good idea. Soy, be it tofu or edamame or (unsweetened, and ideally as unprocessed as possible) soy milk, is a valuable source of protein that shouldn’t be passed over just because overdosing on it is a good way to mess up your hormones.

    Also, what is this about “Antinutrients”? This is the first site I’ve ever heard such a phrase used, and I’m really curious.

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    December 6th, 2009at 7:05 am(#)

    Diana, check out Kaayla Daniel’s work on soy. We did an interesting research based piece on her in one of the issues of Spezzatino magazine.

    The argument that East Asians have been eating soy for years is problematic in a few ways.

    FIrst, it’s traditionally been fermented using long-fermentation processes. The production of miso was traditionally a lengthy, artisanal affair involving natural fungal cultures, sort of like the traditional production of balsamic vinegar. Same with natto. Tofu was done with seawater extracts. People spent months or years on these, carefully allowing the food to cultivate. Now these are industrially produced. If you examine the industrial production process of soy (it’s rather tedious but fascinating in a car-crash kind of way) you can see that what comes out the other end is in no way food. It involves solvent extraction with things like hexane, spray-drying at very high heats, chemical adulteration, etc. etc. The flow chart looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Even traditional tofu and natto aren’t traditional any more. Industry has no time for the old ways. The small amount of omega-3s in soy make it go rancid easily. In the production process it must be bleached and deodorized in order to remove the rancid taste.

    Second, the amounts people actually ate traditionally are very very small compared to the way we now put soy into everything. Read labels — soy is in many foods as soy lecithin, soy oil, etc. If you consume fake meats and soy milk, your consumption of soy is 100 times what traditional Asian cuisine uses. And traditional Asian cuisine isn’t even traditional Asian cuisine, in a way. Soy consumption is relatively recent, originating in the last few hundred years — soy was originally regarded as animal feed in East Asia, not people food. And even that was rarely used, as farmers noticed that animals fed soy became fat and ill. Thus, soy was largely used only as a means of crop rotation and nitrogen fixing.

    Third, ever noticed how miso soup comes with nori? Japanese have figured out how to include other foods that balance soy. Many traditional cultures have figured out how to balance food intake, e.g. rice and beans; blending corn with lime (alkaline substance, not the citrus fruit), fermenting or sprouting grains, etc. Seaweed offsets the iodine disruption (thus thyroid problems) that occurs from soy. Another way to do this is with a fish head or shrimp broth. The thyroid glands in the fish heads dissolve their chemicals into the broth. Again, traditional modes of preparation accommodate and/or compensate for the potential damage that soy can do.

    Antinutrients are substances in foods that inhibit absorption of nutrients. In the case of soy there are many. One type are lectins, proteins that damage the endothelial lining of the gut and stimulate an immune response as well as mechanical damage to the cells themselves. Uncooked soy beans are highly toxic. (Interestingly, another bean that’ll poison you if uncooked is kidney beans. Soak and cook the hell out of them.) Another group of antinutrients are phytates, which inhibit the absorption of minerals. Soy milk, tofu, etc. have calcium and other minerals because these are ADDED during the production process. But you could add minerals to sawdust and call it “a good source of calcium”. Interesting, for a while, soy milk used to be a good source of titanium dioxide. Oddly enough consumers didn’t seem to like milk that tasted like sunscreen.

    Check out Daniel’s work. It’s very well referenced and probably more than you’d ever want to know.

    Frackin really? Yeah, really.

  8. Diana says:

    December 6th, 2009at 7:50 pm(#)

    I’m really curious as to what your sources are- I’m not saying this because I think you’re wrong, I’m really curious. Do you have anything other than The Whole Soy Story? I can’t find any links to supporting research studies. She mentions the one about hypothyroidism, but there aren’t any links to the study.

    As to the processes used in production- I think we’re talking at angles to each other here. I absolutely do not contest the fact that soy protein and heavily-processed forms of soy have been chemically treated and altered and really aren’t food at all. However, tofu is not treated in such a manner. The way you make tofu (on any scale) is such: Milk or juice soybeans. Boil juice. Add a coagulant (calcium sulfate is popular, as are magnesium and calcium chloride salts- which are often found in seawater). Let tofu sit and coagulate to desired stage of firmness. Drain. There’s absolutely no fermentation going on. If you read the historical literature, natto shows up first, miso and tofu show up at around the same time (2-3rd century BC), and there aren’t any records of tempeh until the 16th century AD, though it could have gotten to Indonesia as early as the 1st century AD, but no earlier.

    But we’re not talking about history. My argument is that regardless the history of the plant (after all, tomatoes were once considered poison, and beets were once considered only fit for cows to eat), unfermented, non-commercially processed soy products (i.e. tofu and variants, edamame and certain types of soymilk- NOT SILK- the kind sold in Asian supermarkets or the kind you make at home) can be a viable source of protein. The problem arises when people overdose on commercially processed soy (nuts, protein powder, bars, Silk-type soymilk). Because yes, soy does have those chemicals in it, but the problem only arises (like many problems do) when consumed _in excess_. So soy isn’t evil- it’s just another food. And like with corn and wheat and any other food that’s made its way into nearly every aspect of our diet, it’s up the consumer to make sure that they’re actually eating food, and not “food”.

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    December 7th, 2009at 8:41 am(#)

    Diana, check out Daniels’ book — it’s extensively referenced.

  10. KicknKnit says:

    March 26th, 2010at 1:24 pm(#)

    ” It involves solvent extraction with things like hexane, spray-drying at very high heats, chemical adulteration, etc. etc.”

    I feel much better for snubbing the tofu now.

  11. warrior two says:

    July 1st, 2010at 1:20 am(#)

    ” It involves solvent extraction with things like hexane, spray-drying at very high heats, chemical adulteration, etc. etc.”

    Excuse me? And meat is supposedly pure and healthy? Food animals eat soy and other non-organic plant foods (plus ground up meat), then store the crap from these foods in their bodies so that they go right into your system when you eat them. All fish–even wild–contain alarming levels of heavy metals; livestock are pumped full of drugs and have a much higher fat content than even 20 years ago (because that’s what “tastes good”); and animal products are the foods most likely to carry deadly pathogens. I’ll take those “unhealthy” soy products over that any day.

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    July 1st, 2010at 6:48 am(#)

    I don’t think the choice is soy vs. meat. That’s a false binary. There are other options. If you don’t eat meat, you owe it to yourself to find out what else is in your diet.

  13. warrior two says:

    July 1st, 2010at 4:11 pm(#)

    Yes, but your konfabulator recommends meat, dairy and eggs, and recommends against unfermented soy. The reasons you give for rejecting the latter also apply to the former. It’s hypocritical.

  14. Simma says:

    July 1st, 2010at 4:26 pm(#)

    I respect that some people will abstain from meat for ethical reasons. But saying that those of us who do not are all blindly eating factory farmed meats is a dishonest generalization. And characterizing properly raised meat or game meats as unhealthy simply has no basis in science.

    Also, the idea that Asians eat massive amounts of unfermented soy is just plain wrong.

    Soy is never used as a substitute for meat in East Asian cooking unless the dish is specifically for a religious (usually Buddhist) purpose. So that weird either-or mentality that North Americans have about soy OR meat does not actually exist in Asia. Tofu in traditional Asian cuisines almost always appears in dishes which also contain animal protein from meat or seafood, and while such dishes are eaten frequently, the serving size of actual tofu is usually just a few cubes. Almost all other consumption of soy is in fermented form.

    North American vegetarians consume orders of magnitude more unfermented soy than an Asian eating a traditional diet. And, at this point, even non-vegetarians consume hidden soy in just about everything. Soy is an agribusiness juggernaut, like corn. We do all kinds of crazy things to soy to produce food-like substances that go into padding just about every processed food there is.

    I think the message that vegetarians might need to diversify their protein sources to become less reliant on soy is simply good sense and is not meant as an attack on any dietary choices based on personal ethics.

  15. Mistress Krista says:

    July 2nd, 2010at 4:56 am(#)

    I buy my meat and eggs (don’t consume dairy) from small family organic farmers (or I get game meats from hunters), which means no crap in my meat. I buy fish from small fishers or I catch it myself. Your argument is really about production methods and environmental conditions rather than the actual foods consumed. Don’t forget that the vast majority of soy is also GMO.

    Environmentally, yeah, there’s garbage in everything — our goal is simply to do damage control and make choices that minimize harm. If we begin from the premise that environmental conditions are somewhat out of our control, we can at least control our purchase of industrially processed foods. I encourage everyone to buy whatever food they purchase from small, ecologically responsible (as much as possible) organic farmers and fishers. I encourage folks to avoid processed meat as much as they should avoid processed anything.

    However, for folks who choose not to eat animal products, I strongly recommend avoiding industrially produced soy, period. It’s not about meat vs soy. If people want to eat plant-based, I suggest options for doing so.

Get "Fuck Calories"

Enter your information below and the magical gnomes that run Stumptuous will send you a copy of the "Fuck Calories" e-book for free!
Email Marketing by Javelin