The Soy Debate by Katherine Nichols and Jay Williams, Ph.D.

The on-going controversy linking cancer to soy — the healthy protein rich alternative to meat and dairy products —is alarming. While there is some element of truth in these assertions, they are profoundly  misleading. Here’s what you need to know: Not one scientific study refutes the  fact that soy — in its pure forms, such as tempeh, tofu, or whole  soybeans — is a perfect food, and can help prevent cancer and other  diseases.

The controversy lies with soy isolate, an extracted ingredient of the soy bean..  Scientific studies connecting soy (too often the breakdown goes unmentioned, allowing a processed extraction to give the pure plant  an undeserved bad name) to negative health effects are always conducted on soy isolate. Even Dr. Mercola, a featured contributor to Huffington Post, acknowledges that soy isolate is the problem, not tempeh, tofu, or  whole soy beans, which he notes are safe. So does Dr. Dean Ornish,  whose number one food group includes soy. Ornish is well known for his diet that reverses heart disease and cancer.

And we agree. The bottom line: Avoid refined, processed forms of soy foods, including soy formulas for babies. Enjoy the whole food varieties..

Four things you need to know about soy…

1. What is soy isolate?

A dietary protein ” isolated” from soybeans that contains isoflavone phytoestrogens. Food manufacturers add fillers, flavoring, and preservatives. Why, you ask? It’s the same processed food story. Additives make the product cheaper and tastier, and they give it a longer shelf life.  It’s about business, not health.

In isolated studies conducted on monkeys and rats, soy protein isolate has been linked to allergic reactions, brain damage, and thyroid problems.  None of these findings have been confirmed in human studies.

2. The big bean on campus

Soy’s popularity has grown in the last five to seven years as  Americans gravitated away from dairy and animal products that clog arteries and cause heart disease with added fat and hormones fed to animals to make them grow faster — again, an economic rather than a health benefit — and toward plant-based diets. Soy became a viable alternative.

Fresh and current as it may seem, it’s a long way from a new idea. People in Asia have eaten soy for hundreds of generations, and their incidence of cancer is remarkably low.

3. The truth about the cancer scare

Population studies have failed to show a relationship between soy consumption and increased risk of breast cancer.  The biggest concern related to soy revolves around women with hormone receptor positive forms of breast cancer. Isoflavones are a type of  phytoestrogen, which is a dietary form of estrogen. The  isoflavones in soy have a mild estrogenic effect (this means they  are able to bind to estrogen receptor sites in human tissue)  blocking excess  estrogen, benefiting cancer patients

Concerned about the estrogen-like effect of soy on breast cancer survivors and soy’s potential interaction with the breast cancer  treatment tamoxifen, which works against estrogen receptors in breast tissue, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center examined soy consumption among 5,000 Chinese women treated successfully for breast cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and supported by grants from the Breast Cancer Research Program in the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Cancer Institute, found that women who ate the most soy protein — and therefore consumed the greatest amount of isoflavones — were about one- third less likely to suffer a recurrence of breast cancer or die during the four years of follow-up.

Indeed, the scientists noted that high soy consumption benefited everyone, including women with either estrogen-positive (cancer cells that need estrogen to grow) or estrogen-negative (cancer cells that don’t need estrogen to grow) illnesses.

The National Cancer Institute also found that soy consumption early in life conferred protection against breast cancer later. The women studied were of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino ancestry, and were living in California or Hawaii. Their findings stated that those who had consumed the largest amounts of soy foods as children (between ages five and 11) lowered their risk for breast cancer as adults by 60%.

The amount of soy recommended for women to help protect against breast cancer is 25 to 35 grams per day. This also happens to be the average amount of soy that Asian women consume.

4. What’s so hot about the soybean?

Protein, pure and simple. Some plants contain protein, which is made from building blocks called amino acids linked together in a chain. Of the 20 amino acids found in the body, nine are considered essential because the body can’t make them, so they must be consumed. Soy protein is the only plant protein that is complete because it contains all 9 essential amino acids in the right balance. The soybean is also the only vegetable that has more protein than carbohydrates. So make sure you investigate the details of research findings before dismissing this  important dietary staple that can help prevent  cancer.

Stay tuned for the updates on soy and heart disease. “Phytoestrogens Offer Safe Alternative To Hormone Replacement Therapy says the  Journal of American College of Cardiology”

Katherine Nichols has covered travel and lifestyle sports, fitness, and health since 1992, both as a staff writer and a freelancer for a variety of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Town & Country, and the Associated Press. In addition, she wrote, produced, and hosted an adventure travel/diving series in Hawaii for two years. An athlete since the age of 7, Nichols ran cross-country and track for UCLA, and has raced in hundreds of running, swimming, outrigger canoe, and triathlon events. She is a two-time finisher of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona. www.katherinenichols.com