The soybean is a wonderful food. It is rich in a wide range of nutrients, and an excellent source of protein.
From a food use perspective, the soybean is nearly infinitely adaptable in its ability to take on any taste and texture.
As a result, soy finds its way into a surprising number of foods we eat. Of course these include foods where the soybean is visible in the food or name, such as edamame, soy sauce, tofu, soy-based infant formulas, and soy milk. But if you consider the number of foods that have an ingredient with the word vegetable in it, with phrases such as vegetable flavoring, vegetable emulsifier, vegetable gum, vegetable starch, the exposure to soy in our food is extensive.
If soy is so wonderful, what controversy surrounds it? The controversy is limited to one chemical in soybeans, phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are molecules in plants that look like the molecule found in humans called estrogen. As you know, estrogen is the paradigm hormone of being female. It is estrogen that makes breasts develop, that helps control the menstrual cycle, and that helps maintain pregnancy and nursing.
The concern is whether the estrogen-like compounds in soybeans actually have estrogen effects in the human body. It turns out very tiny differences in hormone molecules lead to dramatic differences in function. Estrogen, for example, when altered by a very tiny amount becomes testosterone, the male hormone. So we know tiny differences change function quite a bit!
So the question is, if you eat phytoestrogen from soy, does it do anything? So far, the evidence leans heavily towards this answer: No. If it did act as an estrogen in humans, we should see breast development in children, puberty pushed early in girls, and later in boys. There is no evidence that any of these events occur in people who eat soy products. Some research actually raises the possibility that phytoestrogens may decrease the incidence, in adults, of developing breast and prostate cancer. But again, there are essentially no data on any group of people having a measurable difference in their lives in any way from eating or not eating soy.
Therefore, at this time, pending finding any actual impact on people, we are recommending to people that eating soy is safe for pregnant women, for infants, and all people.
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