The trouble with soy

Though many vegans and vegetarians include soy in their diets, you may have noticed that all my recipes are soy-free. I’m not – as far as I know – allergic to soy. So why would I avoid a food that’s cheap, versatile, protein rich and is said to have many health benefits? It seems silly. But is it?

We all know the health claims. Asians eat tons of soy and look how healthy they are. Also note what happens when they switch to a Western diet. And soy may actually be healthy. Fermented, and in very moderate amounts. Because, in truth the traditional Asian diet does not include lots of soy. Just two teaspoons full of traditionally fermented soy per day.

The first thing that worried me about soy, were the phytoestrogens it contains. Sure, lots of plant foods contain phytoestrogens, but none are as high in phytoestrogens as soy. Even apart from the fact that I don’t think it’s a good thing for men to get lots of female hormone into their systems (ever heard of a man taking birth control pills?), these plant based hormones influence our endocrine systems, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing – for anyone.

Sure, many experts say soy is perfectly safe to eat and the phytoestrogens won’t have any noticeable negative effect on our bodies. Then there are those who claim the opposite. Who am I to believe? How can I know who’s right, when studies contradict each other? In the end, I guess I’d rather be safe than sorry.

So that’s the hormonal disruption. But there’s other things. Things like too much soy being genetically modified – which, again, many claim is perfectly safe while others disagree. There’s the pesticides (glyphosate, anyone?) that are used – and quite liberally so – to spray the soy crops. Also, let’s not forget about the list of anti-nutrients in soy which block the enzymes needed for digestion and phytates blocking the absorption of essential minerals.

For me, that’s reason enough to avoid soy as much as possible. I’m not taking it to extremes. If my bar of chocolate happens to contain soy lecithin (a waste product, actually) I’m not too worried about it. I seldom eat more than one or two bites of that bar at any given time, and the soy lecithin is way down on the ingredient list. A tiny amount of it every now and then isn’t likely to hurt me.

Also, there seems to be this consensus that fermented (organic) soy does not have the same adverse effects on the human body that unfermented soy may have. Which means it would be fine to consume tamari, miso, tempeh and natto in moderate amounts. I’m not fond of that stuff, so apart from adding some (gluten free) tamari to my dishes every now and then, you won’t catch me using any of it.

The question remains: Is soy good or bad? And the answer seems to be, “we don’t really know for sure.”

I’m simply not taking that gamble.

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