Increasing numbers of people are turning away from meat and embracing a more plant-based diet, meaning that soy foods are more popular than ever. But just how healthy is this plant protein? Here, I run you through the facts.
Soy foods such as tofu, milk, miso and edamame have long been popular ‘health foods’, particularly amongst vegans and vegetarians. They are one of the few good, non-animal sources of protein and are also rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. So, where’s the downside? Headlines and studies over recent years have spiked a backlash, with claims that it can negatively affect your hormone balance, thyroid function and may even increase your risk of cancer. What should we believe?
As with many foods, the answer isn’t straightforward. The key to making the healthiest choices is knowing the facts. To help you do that, I’ve highlighted a few positives and negatives, so you can make informed decisions about whether to include in your diet, and which soy foods are the best…
SOY: THE GOOD
Soy is nutritionally dense. It’s one of the best non-meat protein sources out there. Vegans have limited choices when it comes to protein sources so tofu and tempeh are relatively healthy alternatives to animal proteins. It is also a good source of fibre, vitamin C, folate and manganese.
While headlines suggest soy has been linked to an increased risk of cancer due to the contains isoflavones (more on that later), there has in fact been no study proving such a link, and in fact, consumption has been shown to reduce risk and recurrence of both breast and prostate cancer.
SOY: THE BAD
Not all soy products were created equal. In Asia, where it has long been a key part of the diet, products like miso and tempeh are traditionally fermented, far preferable to the processed soy milk and tofu that are more popular in the west.
Ambiguity around the safety of soy products due to the high levels of isoflavones (oestrogen-like compounds) found in it can make it hard to make clear decisions. The FDA has made several back-tracks when it comes to the benefits or surrounding the plant protein and heart disease. A small number of studies have shown a link between soy consumption and reproductive problems and thyroid disease but these have all been done on animals, so it seems like we might need some more studies before we can say for sure.
Soy isn’t a one-stop-shop replacement food for vegans. For example, I would never recommend soy milk over the other dairy-free alternatives on the market. You can see my favourite non-diary milks in my round-up. There are also plenty of vegan protein shakes that provide an excellent way for non-meat-eaters to boost their protein intake.
It is a good idea for people with certain health conditions to avoid it, such as those with thyroid disorders. If you’re unsure whether or not it’s a good idea for you to eat it, always check with a qualified nutrition expert.
Soy can be a healthy (and safe) food for most people, as long as it’s eaten in moderation. Opt for fermented products over processed options and try to include a variety of different protein sources in your diet.