This is the soy cappuccino that I go to sleep at night dreaming about! it is made from unsweetened soy milk that I buy in the refrigerated section of Trader Joe's, which is one of the few places around here it can still be purchased. About 15 years ago, soy was all the rage. It was heart-healthy, lactose-free, and provided a phytoestrogen that helped women with hormonal problems. Today, health conscious people prefer almond, coconut or even dairy milk. 

In this article I am going to explore some of the myths about soy and why it has fallen out of favor. At the peak of its popularity soy was eaten by many vegans and vegetarians 3 times a day seven days a week. Soy milk for breakfast, burgers for lunch, tofu for dinner and soy ice cream for dessert. To top it off people made soy smoothies, and took soy supplements. Why? 

Leave it to Americans to over do any good thing. It was easy, it tasted pretty good, when processed into burgers and well-seasoned. It provided a good source of plant protein in a protein obsessed nation. This must have given a bit of a scare to the dairy and meat industries. It also created a perfect niche for soy bashing. In fact, there are professed health experts, advocating diets high in animal protein, who have practically built their careers on soy bashing. 

Common sense will tell you that, when given a choice, using any food to the degree that many people were using soy is not optimal. But somehow, when it comes to food, we are not all that rational. There are so many food products and marketing ploys  that choices can be confusing. 

In the 30-plus years that I have been writing and teaching about healthy plant-based foods I have learned how to tell truth from hype. There are a few questions I ask when choosing what to eat - how long has it been used for food, how was it grown, and how was it processed?

Soy is relatively new in the U.S.  In fact, the first time it was written about in this country was in 1804. This may explain why many Americans tend to be leery of soy. In China however, it can be traced to the eleventh century B.C. It was probably discovered early on that cooked dried soybeans are somewhat difficult to digest and not all that tasty. Thus the invent of soy foods and it is speculated that soy milk, because it is so simple to make, was  one of the earliest soy foods. In 1500 AD soy milk was first referenced in China in a poem titled “Ode to Tofu.”

Making soy milk is a little more trouble than making almond milk, but it is still quite simple. To make soy milk, simply soak some soybeans overnight and drain off the soaking water. Grind the soaked beans into a slurry with water. Strain and press the slurry through a cloth. The resulting milk is then cooked for about 9 minutes and voila soy milk! That's it. Years ago, before it was available at the store, I used to make it at home from scratch with just a blender, a pan and some cheesecloth.

Soy milk is not a highly processed food. Of course, the food industry can spoil any good thing to make it more "appealing" and profitable. Many soy milks are very sweet and some contain unnecessary ingredients, nonetheless, it is possible to buy healthy unsweetened soy milk.

For the Love of Soy
It was a young American named William Surtleff and his Japanese wife Akiko Aoyagi who popularized soy in the U.S. back in the 1970's.  Surtleff, like many of us was influenced by Frances Moore Lappe's  groundbreaking book Diet for a Small Planet. Forty years before Cowspiracy, Lappe wrote about the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals, and reasoned that world hunger would not exist if all the grains and legumes we grow were eaten directly by humans. Surtleff was introduced to soy in Japan and saw the need for a cheap non-meat source of protein in the west. Today, with drought, hunger and global warming howling at our door, healthy, good tasting, non-meat sources of protein are more needed than ever. 

When I quit eating meat 42 years ago, I knew it was for life, and today I think I can say that it has served me well. This is partly because I took the time to learn about nutrition, growing food and food preparation. I find it sad when someone tells me that they were once vegan or vegetarian, but now eat meat because a plant-based diet did not work for them. Protein and other nutrients are not all that difficult to get on a vegan diet, but it is something that I have seen many vegetarians and vegans neglect to their detriment. Without good nutrition people who try a plant-based diet often go back to eating meat and fish because they become deficient. 

Most of us grew up eating a very high protein diet. According to Paul Pitchford in Healing with Whole Foods, the average American man overeats protein by 100 percent. The word protein means primary substance. We need it for growth and repair, and soy is a great source of protein. Traditional soy foods like, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, tamari and miso have been used for centuries, not as a sole source of protein like many vegans were trying to do years ago, but as an easy, practical and healthy source of protein used to compliment grains and vegetables as part of a fresh and varied diet. 

"More Insidious Than Hemlock."
Soy is an easy target - as a good friend once told me "There's no foo like a tofu." Tofu is a square, white, rather tasteless, lump with absolutely no  means of protecting itself. At the same time it is a culinary wizard and nutritional powerhouse that can drastically reduce global energy consumption when used to replace meat and dairy. 

The controversy over soy seemed to begin somewhere around 1999 when a soy-slamming article which, in spite of a plethora of false claims, somehow began to be taken as valid nutrition information. In reaction to this article, and the hype that stemmed from it, breast cancer patients were even being told by their doctors to avoid soy because of it's "high estrogen" content. This is truly a shame because it has been repeatedly proven that the the phytoestrogen in soy is actually protective against breast cancer, especially when it has been consumed from an early age. 

The most absurd claim in the article was that "soy was more insidious than hemlock." That quote alone is enough for me to discredit everything else it said, but if you need footnoted proof, the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients wrote a well-researched rebuttal in 2000 that you can read at  Since then, almost everything claimed by this author about soy being a hormone disruptor has been shown to be false. Nonetheless, the myths still persist

Endocrine Disruption
Just the other day a photographer friend jokingly told me that he avoided soy because he didn't want to start growing breasts. "Soy is bad for men," he claimed. I tried to explain how soy actually protects from the hormone disruptors that we are all exposed to on a daily basis, regardless of what we eat. 

 In the 1996 book, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story , Theo ColbornDianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers wrote how components in plastics, pesticides and industrial chemicals called xenoestrogens actually mimic estrogen in our bodies, and how there is not a man, woman or child, even in the most remote reaches of the earth free from these contaminants. Xenoestrogens, lock into our estrogen receptors. They act like estrogen but are more potent.

Phytoestrogens, or estrogen-like compounds from plants also lock into our estrogen receptors, but they are much milder than xenoestrogen, or the estrogen our bodies make, and can be protective against having too much estorgen. Phytoestrogens, by the way, are not only in soy. They are also found in many other plants, including herbs and seasonings, flax, grains , vegetables, fruits and even coffee.

Soy Formula and Infants
It is true that infants, when given soy formula get a much larger dose of phytoestrogens from soy than an adult would. Infants also absorb higher concentrations of pesticides and other environmental pollutants than adults, due to their their small size and higher metabolic rate. 

In a 2006 article in the Harvard Gazette, Environmental scientist, Ganmaa Davaasambu was quoted as saying  "Among the routes of human exposure to estrogen, we are mostly concerned about cow's milk, which contains considerable amounts of female sex hormones,"  The article went on to say that Gamma says that cow's milk accounts for 60 to 80 percent of estrogens consumed. 

Experts agree that human breast milk, not formula, is the best food for infants. Studies have shown that breast milk from vegan or vegetarian mom's is lower in contaminants that that of mom's who eat a diet high in animal products. Soy formula is not ideal for an infant, but when breast milk is not an option, it would be certainly worth comparing it to cows milk and taking into consideration all the facts before making a judgement. 

More to Come
GMO's and other controversies surrounding soy will be covered in the coming weeks.


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