Did you notice how soy products seem to have grown in number over the years? Soy foods actually get billions of dollars in sales in the U.S. alone, every year!
I think manufacturers owe it to all the health buzz these days about soy food consumption. Think about all the good things have you heard about soy so far.
But, which of all these health claims are true? Which ones are just myths? And most importantly, ‘is soy vegan?’ The soy plant is, of course. What about soy food products? Read on!
What Is Soy?
The continuously growing soybean industry has been the answer to cheaper, and possibly healthier source of protein worldwide. But where does it come from?
Soy, or soya is a legume with edible seeds, best known as soybeans. These beans come in many colors. They can be green, light yellow, brown, or black, and some may have 2 colors.
You can mistake the soy plant for peas because their pods look very much the same. Soy is from the pea family, after all.
You might also find it called different names. If you’ve heard of edamame before, soybeans are the mature version of the plant while edamame is the younger, unripe form.
These two forms have different uses and nutritional content. In this article, however, I will focus on soybeans.
What’s In A Soybean?
Although soybean is highly popular as a protein source, that’s not all there is in the world’s most economical bean. From USDA’s National Nutrient Database, here are all the nutrients you can get per 100 grams of soybeans.
Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Quite a load!
Popular Food Products From Soy
Soy is in a lot food products these days. Mostly as a food additive or enhancer. However, there are also foods that are popularly soy-based and are widely used worldwide. Some of these are:
Is Soy Vegan?
Being a plant food, yes, soy is vegan. In fact, it’s quite popular among vegans because it’s the most common alternative to a lot of non-vegan food items.
Among all plant foods, soy also contains the highest amount of protein, which easily replaces meat as a protein source.
(If you would like to learn more about high protein sources for vegans, check out my blog post “You Need To See This Vegan Protein Sources Chart! Got Enough Protein?”)
The versatility of soybeans also made it possible to develop vegan versions of dairy and meat products. Aside from milk, vegans can now enjoy the following too:
- Soy-based cream
- Soy-based sour cream
- Soy cheese
- Veggie meat
- Soy burgers
- Soy hotdogs
- Soy yogurt
Although soy is vegan, those on a plant-based diet should still be cautious when it comes to processed soy products. Always check the labels to make sure there are no non-vegan ingredients in it.
Health Benefits Of Soy Consumption
Consuming soy definitely has health benefits. Here are some of them:
1. Breast cancer risk reduction
One of the most popular health benefits of soy is its ability to fight breast cancer because of its phytoestrogen. But how true is that?
There’s actually a more recent study among Chinese women (Chinese foods often have soy) published in 2016 to confirm this.
In summary, the study found out that soy consumption is indeed effective in reducing breast cancer risk. This was among both post- and premenopausal women.
There’s a catch though. The effect was only among those who had high soy intake from adolescence to adulthood.
If soy consumption was high during adulthood, but low during adolescence, postmenopausal breast cancer may still occur.
Also, genes may play a role here especially in the way the body metabolizes certain food nutrients.
The studies that led to such findings also found out that soy consumption can significantly reduce the risk of cancer metastasis as well.
2. Lowers cholesterol levels
A study back in 1995 used phytosterols (plant sterols) from soybean to confirm its effects against bad cholesterol.
The findings indicate that just a moderate amount of soybean in the diet can lower blood cholesterol levels by 15%.
The interesting part in this study was the phytosterols was given with butter for 4 weeks. This just shows how potent phytosterols can be when it comes to reducing high cholesterol levels.
To think that can happen with just moderate soy intake is quite impressive. Don’t you think?
Whether you want to gain healthy weight or just want to maintain the weight you’re in, soy can help you. According to The Journal Of Medicinal Food, black soybeans, in particular, have anti-obesity properties.
While soy can suppress your appetite so you can stop overeating, its fiber and protein content can help in a healthy weight gain. That is, if you eat more of it of course.
4. Relief of menopausal symptoms
Soybeans are also popular for their isoflavones. Did you know it can replace the use of hormonal replacement therapy drugs for postmenopausal women?
After menopause, estrogen levels often drop significantly. This results to hot flashes, mood swings, and other frustrating symptoms that can even be traumatic for some women.
Isoflavones can bind to estrogen receptor cells. When this happens, the transition that happens after menopause can proceed much slower.
This means the body won’t feel such dramatic and abrupt changes from menopause. That’s right! Much less irritating symptoms!
However, while there are many studies that show isoflavone’s success, there are also some studies that may appear conflicting.
Some studies have higher success rates against postmenopausal symptoms while others have lower numbers.
Quite possibly though, the conflicting results may be because of the varying methods of application. I’m talking about the food preparation processes, amounts given, and time spent in each of the studies.
But I must say, in both higher and lower percentages, soy was still able to produce positive effects. Essentially, that smaller percentage still matters.
5. Aids in digestion
Looking at a soybean’s fiber content, the fact that it aids in digestion doesn’t come as a surprise. You don’t even need new studies to prove fiber’s role in the human digestive health.
Fiber boosts intestinal movement and bulks up your stool. That translates to smooth digestion and elimination. Now who wouldn’t want that?
6. Bone health
The high calcium content in every cup of soybean can be surprising. But then again, this is what makes soy milk a great vegan alternative for cow’s milk.
It’s not just calcium though. Soybean’s impressive levels of magnesium is also a key nutrient for bone health.
Adequate magnesium in the diet helps absorb and metabolize calcium. Now that’s like the lock and key to bone health right there.
7. Birth defect prevention
For women who have been pregnant, you know how prenatal vitamins are a must during pregnancy.
These vitamins that help in healthy fetal development are rich in B vitamins, folate, and iron. Soybeans have all of these!
Folate is the natural form vitamin B9 (folic acid is the synthetic form) which the body can use better. It is known for its significant role in preventing neural tube defects among babies developing in the womb.
8. Diabetes control
The dreadful diabetes often stems from insulin resistance. The D-pinitol in soybean can help counter this by increasing the insulin receptors.
This effect was shown in a study from 2006. This applies to both the prevention and control of type 2 diabetes.
9. Better blood circulation
The formation of red blood cells require a lot of different nutrients. Copper and iron, which are both abundantly present in soybeans, are just some of these nutrients.
Soybean is naturally high in iron, and copper is high in fermented soy products. With adequate red blood cells, blood circulation can fuel our metabolic activities better.
10. Sleep quality improvement
With 280 mg of magnesium in every 100 g of soybeans, it’s quite easy to get your RDA. With less than 2 cups of soybeans, women can get reach their 310 mg RDA already. The same for men with an RDA of 420 mg.
Do you often have trouble sleeping at night? According to The Sleep Doctor, magnesium plays a critical role in promoting a restful sleep. It also helps in overall health, particularly in bone and heart health.
11. Maintains Cognitive Function
From a 2017 study, soybean’s lesser known polyphenol daidzein from the bean’s isoflavones can offer neuroprotection.
While the study didn’t have definitive results, there was an observation about daidzen’s role in preventing certain neuropathological conditions.
This occurs from the interaction of the polyphenol with the receptors in the cerebrovascular system.
Aren’t these a lot of benefits from such tiny beans? Soybeans are not just a versatile plant food. Their nutritional profile, along with the many studies that support it, are proof enough of the significant health benefits.
Now you’re probably thinking to add more soybeans to your diet! But before you do, continue reading this article first.
Too Much Soybean: What Harm Can It Do?
If you’re sold on soybeans’ health benefits, don’t fill up with you daily menu with soybeans just yet. Know that anything in excess is bad. Well there you go.
Some of the controversies about soybean had to do with the negative effects of its excessive consumption. So, what happens when you eat too much soy?
First off, there are very few records that document the effects of excessive soy consumption. The most notable effects are among men:
In a medical journal published on 2008, a man (60 years old) was reported to have gynecomastia for 6 months.
Along with the “man boobs”, there was also erectile dysfunction and lesser libido. Aside from an extremely high estradiol levels, all other tests were normal.
As it turned out, the man claimed to drink at least 3 quarts of soy milk every day. Thankfully, everything gradually returned to normal once he stopped consuming soy milk.
However, the duration of the man’s excessive soy milk intake was not given.
2. Hormonal dysfunction
The other case was that of a 19-year old male, who was vegan with type 1 diabetes. His consumption was more than 14 servings of soy products each day. This was before the sudden onset of erectile dysfunction and loss of libido.
However, it took about a year of complete cessation before his sexual function went completely back to normal. Duration of soy intake was again not given.
Soy is a goitrogen, which is a classification of foods that can affect thyroid function. Goitrogenic foods mostly include cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and arugula.
In large amounts, goitrogens can inhibit the production of thyroid hormones. When this occurs, the pituitary gland will release more TSH or thyroid-stimulating hormone.
However, since there are no thyroid hormones, it will keep producing TSH until it piles up. Eventually, this can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland.
Aside from possibly excessive soy products in the diet, consuming other goitrogens can contribute to goiter.
A study from 2016 in fact reveals more about this. People who consume 2 servings of soy products a day have 4 times the risk of having high TSH levels. Women are also more prone to thyroid disorders.
Although plant foods are mostly highly nutritious, moderate consumption is still the safest.
Try to limit your soy intake up to 1 cup a day only. This is important especially if you’re also consuming vegetables that have the same nutritional profile. You’d still get a lot nutrients from just 1 cup of soy products anyway.
Other Health Concerns About Soy Consumption
You probably haven’t met anyone with allergies to soy, but it’s actually more common than it seems.
Some develop the allergies from childhood, but eventually disappears as the child grows into adulthood. In some cases, others have to live with it for the rest of their lives.
Most foods with proteins are known allergens. In the case of soy allergies, the symptoms can be any or all of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Itchy skin with hives or scaling (eczema)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Runny nose
- Skin redness
- Swollen lips (the rest of the face, or other body parts may swell too)
- Tingly feeling in the mouth
Like other allergies, severe cases, although rare, may lead to anaphylaxis. If there is difficulty in breathing, loss of consciousness, and extreme swelling, you know what to do. See a doctor right away!
2. GMO soybeans
With the growing demand for soybean products, it’s no surprise how producers can resort to genetic modification.
The good thing today though, is that more people are generally aware when it comes to GMO products. The result? More non-GMO food labels!
It will be a long journey for non-GMO soy though. About 80% of the worldwide soy production is still GMO. But the more important thing is, more serious steps are now being taken by the seed industry to increase non-GMO seeds.
GMO soy food products can cause liver damage and even increase infant mortality. Aside from the serious effects on health, genetic modification may also affect the nutrient-rich compounds of soybeans.
As much as possible, choose soy products with organic and non-GMO labels only. They are growing in number now!
Brands like Nasoya, Wildwood, Eden Foods, Mitoku, and Tofurky all use non-GMO soybeans. This way you can avoid exposure to GM soybeans.
Got soy allergies? You can try to desynthesize it by starting on very small quantities of soy and slowly build up the amount.
That is of course as long as you don’t get any negative reaction in the process. Otherwise you might have to say goodbye to soy forever.
FAQs: Busting Myths And Controversies
Now it’s time to answer the most common questions about soy controversies! Are you ready to let go of your old beliefs?
A lot of the topics above have the answers (long versions!) to some of the questions here. But if you want a definite yes or no, then read on!
1. Is soy a dairy?
No, absolutely not. Soy is a legume, and is therefore a plant. Milk made from soy is non-dairy.
2. Does vegan food have soy?
Yes, but not all. Soy is a popular medium or base in developing vegan versions of meat and dairy products. Soy milk and soy meats are the most common examples.
However, there are other vegan substitutes such as nut milks and veggie meats made from wheat gluten.
3. What vegan food products have soy?
The most common you’ll see in groceries are soy milk, soy meat, soy yogurt, soy cheese, and soy sauce. These are aside from the obvious ones like tofu and tempeh.
4. Are there soy-free vegan products?
Yes, of course! Look for “soy-free” labels and watch out for soy in the ingredients list if you have soy allergies.
Most foods with soy in it will have it on their list since it is a known allergen. If you want to avoid soy milk, go for nut milks. If you have no nut allergies, that is.
5. Is soy good or bad for you?
If you don’t have soy allergies, soy is good in moderate amounts. Soy is quite a nutritious plant food but can also be bad if you consume it excessively. What amount is excessive for soy? Try not to go over 1 cup each day.
6. Can you be vegan without soy?
Yes, absolutely! The plant world is full of varieties and you can always substitute one with another if you don’t like it. After all, your vegan diet should not only be nutritious but enjoyable for you as well.
7. Is soy meat vegan?
Yes, as long as there are no animal products added to make it taste like meat. That would defeat the purpose, right?
8. Can soy cause cancer?
Not if taken in moderation. In fact, there are many studies that link soy consumption to a significant decrease in risks against certain cancers such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer.
9. Is soy bad for men?
In excessive amounts, it can be. There have been records of some men experiencing sexual dysfunctions after continuously consuming excessive amounts of soy products every day.
To be exact, one was having 3 pints of soy milk per day, while the other consumes more than 14 servings of soy foods daily.
Wanna stay manly on a vegan diet? Then I suggest you stick to just 1 serving of soy food per day!
10. Does soy have estrogen?
No. For the record, phytoestrogens in soy are NOT estrogens and cannot add up directly to human estrogen. They simply bind to one of the two estrogen receptors, where they can either enhance or inhibit estrogen.
BONUS: To learn how you can cook a vegan friendly meal with tofu, check out the video below!
11. Can soy increase estrogen levels?
Yes, if you consume too much if it. However, it will take quite an excessive consumption for it to affect estrogen levels significantly. It is rare, but it can happen. See the studies above about gynecomastia and hormonal dysfunction.
So for the record, if you are a male, don’t worry, you won’t grow boobs if you eat soy!
12. Does soy cause acne?
Yes, unfortunately. If it causes your estrogen levels to dip lower than normal (reaction varies per person), soy food may cause acne. This often happens when you eat too much soy, though. If you have acne, soy may aggravate it, too.
13. Does soy cause ovarian cancer?
No. On the contrary, it can actually reduce your risk against it! See the study about it mentioned above. Yes remember to buy non-GMO, organic soy products.
14. Is soy bad for breast cancer?
No. In fact, there are studies (see above) that suggests how soy can protect you from breast cancer.
However, studies that aim to determine if soy can affect tumor growth are still conflicting. Also, most of the negative studies are those from animal subjects.
While the verdict is yet to be given, those with breast cancer or have a family history of it should keep soy consumption to a minimum.
15. What does soy do to your hormones?
Moderate consumption of soy does NOT affect human hormones. However, too much of it can disrupt thyroid hormone production. For men, excessive soy food may increase estrogen levels.
16. Is soy bad for thyroid?
Yes, because soy is a goitrogenic food. In excessive consumption, it can block the production of thyroid hormones and cause an imbalance that can lead to goiter.
Soy is a highly nutritious legume that makes up a lot of vegan diet. It is vegan, but vegans can always choose to exclude soy food products from their diet especially if they have allergies.
Despite all the health-boosting nutrients of soy, moderate consumption is still the way to go. This is to avoid health issues that arise from excessive soy consumption, especially among men.
Does your vegan diet include soy foods? Have you had any health issues with soy food consumption? Let me know on the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this article in your favorite social media platform.