Soy is everywhere these days. Once brewed as coffee by American Civil War soldiers as a replacement for scarce coffee beans, the health benefits of soy were put forth by George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute in 1904. In the 1940s and 50s food processes realized they were wasting valuable soy protein by only using soy oil in their products. Thus began a marketing and health awareness campaign to promote soy products as a healthy source of protein and fiber for vegetarians and vegans. It has been touted as a complete food having all the proteins a human body needs. Today, soy is used in some form or the other in almost all processed food, and as research has continued into the health giving benefits of soy for both men and women a few surprising facts have emerged.
Soy, Isoflavones and Men – The Good
Heralded as the ‘wonder bean’ and ‘miracle food’, soy contains the required nutrients to keep the human body healthy and protein rich. Also, studies with large control groups have shown that it can reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases in both men and women. Soy contains isoflavones, a plant-based form of estrogen like compounds that fall under the class of phytoestrogens. Although these isoflavones are found in grains, legumes and wheat, their quantity is most concentrated in soy and soy-based products. Some of the health benefits of soy are:
Reduced risk of coronary disease: There is positive correlation between a diet rich in soy protein and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It has been observed that Japanese men, whose intake of soy is nearly 50 gm per day, are half as susceptible to heart problems than their American counterparts who consume as little as 5 gm per day. South-East Asians in general have lower incidences of heart trouble than people living in the Western hemisphere, and some researchers link this to their regular substitution of soy protein for animal protein. Even in the US, researchers have successfully lowered (lowered) bad cholesterol or LDL levels in men and women, after subjecting them to a diet rich in soy protein.
Prevents prostate cancer: People of the Orient face lesser risk of contracting cancers of the prostate than those in Western countries, this too is being linked by epidemiologists to their intake of soy fiber and protein. The hypothesis is that the compound genistein, which is a isoflavone found in soy, retard the progress of tumors.
Healthy bones: Although research is still inconsistent in this area, bone density loss has been observed to have reduced in certain test cases. Soy milk consumption has in some cases checked the advance of osteoporosis compared to normal milk.
Benefits to the digestive system: Cancer of the colon is also a leading cause of death in men, and though no irrefutable proof has been forthcoming, some studies have shown that soy helps in maintaining a good digestive system and reduces the risk of colon cancer.
Helping the brain: Studies have shown that dietary supplements of soy protein can improve cognitive ability in people under the age of 65.
With a bouquet of benefits like these, soy can indeed be thought of as the food of life. However, as we shall see, all is not well on the soy front.
Can Soy be Bad for Men?
The overall effectiveness of isoflavones, in reducing risks of heart disease, LDL or bad cholesterol, osteoporosis or even breast and prostate cancer, has not been irrevocably proven. The concern for men, here, is the possibility of an increase in their estrogen levels as a result of consuming large amounts of soy. In 1999 the US FDA approved the inclusion of health benefit bylines for products containing at least 6.5 grams of soy, giving a big boost to the soy food industry. Products such as soy milk, butter and cereal began cluttering supermarket shelves. The soy diet became popular during the late 90s, encouraging men to change eating patterns, discarding the traditional meat eggs and milk breakfast for soy alternatives. However, recent research has shown that soy can have some negative effects as well:
Hormonal imbalance: Excessive intake of soy products such as soy milk has caused hormonal changes in men, increasing their estrogen levels beyond what normal healthy women would have. This results in gynecomastia, or breast enlargement in men, along with reduced libido and hair loss. Again, there is inconsistency here, as many tests show no danger from soy consumption but there are real-life cases that prove otherwise.
Soy allergies: Soy has been found to contain 15 proteins, one of them being soy lecithin, a common ingredient, which may trigger allergic reactions. Scientists are still not sure what causes soy allergy but children who show allergic symptoms to soy usually develop immunity by the age of 10. However, soy allergy affects adults of both sexes too, and in rare cases can be severe.
Suspected Carcinogens: Tests on rats have shown raw soy can cause cancer but these tests have not been duplicated on humans, and there does not exist enough data to correlate them. Although the isoflavones found in soy have been shown to be anti-cancerous, doctors as yet do not recommend taking soy supplements to reduce cancer risk.
Soy infant formulas: Soy-based infant feeding formulas were also touted as the best way to provide your baby with whole protein and a step up from regular mother’s milk. Recent research has proved that in terms of protein content, both soy milk and whole milk are at par. Moreover, soy products have proteins which act as stoppers for the release of nutrients such as vitamin B12. The proteins needed for release of such vital nutrients are called Trypsins and these ‘anti-nutrients’ act as trypsin inhibitors preventing proteins from being digested. They can only be partially removed through extensive heat treatment. What is more, studies are now showing that male infants reared exclusively on soy-based milk receive the equivalent of five birth control pills a day affecting the development of sexual organs and testosterone.
Soy and soy-based products are turning out to be double-edged swords in the light of new research. The propaganda that put soy at the top of the list of healthy foods has unraveled, and scientists are looking closely at its purported benefits and ill-effects. Soy has proven to be beneficial, but its intake should be limited and consumers should avoid becoming victims of fad diets that do more harm than good in the long run. Also, extensive research with larger populations and control groups should be undertaken to study the long-term aspects of soy consumption. These studies should be impartial and undertaken by bodies not affiliated to the soy industry.