Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Soy Protein?

Would you eat this TV?
Happy Holidays!  Before the official post begins, I want to make a shameless plug for the latest addition to the blog - my new store!  Please keep my nutrition therapy services and food sensitivity testing in mind when you're buying your loved ones gifts for the holidays.  Either purchase gift certificates here or email me at for more information.  On with the post... 

I get this question a LOT.  "What protein powder is best?"  It's like asking me which black and white TV is best - the 12" or the 15"?  Neither - they're black and white TVs.  And they're small.  What we all want is a Samsung 65" 1080p / 240Hz / 3D LED-LCD HDTV, right?  That's what I want, anyway, and if anyone has $6,000 to spare you can get me that for Christmas.  To be perfectly clear, in this analogy the Samsung is real, unadulterated, unprocessed, high quality food.  The black and white TVs, in all their splendid sizes, are protein powders.

Excuse my idealism, but I believe there is enough real food in America that you should be able to find a way to put some veggies, fruit, eggs, nuts, seeds or meat in your mouth, instead of a completely wrecked, processed, food-like powder.  I do realize that there are situations when a protein powder is much easier, more affordable and faster than making or buying an entire meal, but in my opinion the better choice is always real, whole food.  Whole foods like raw or lightly cooked veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs and meats have nutrients in them that work synergistically with each other to nourish you in many different ways.  When you process soy, whey, rice, etc. to make protein powders out of them, a lot of their nutrients are stripped away with heat, chemicals and dangerous heavy metals.  Today we're going to talk about soy protein's misgivings and merits.  Next week I'll go over whey protein.
Soy protein comes in several different forms - soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and sometimes just soy flour.  They are all soy beans, or edamame, processed in some way - some more than others.  No matter what type of soy protein it is, it's all soy.  You'll find these products not only in tubs of soy protein powder, but in everything from Odwalla drinks to Clif bars, cookies, soups, cereals, bread - you name it.  Because it's so ubiquitous, I thought it deserved a post of its own. 

There is an UNBELIEVABLE amount of research and contention surrounding soy.  I considered trying to lay it all out there for you, but quite honestly the thought of that made me nauseous and grumpy.  I'm just going to make myself useful by pointing you in the direction of some good sources of info on the topic. 

The Bad

Dr. Mercola, alternative medicine's monger of fear and anxiety, had this to say about soy.  A lot of his information was taken from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has Sally Fallon at its helm.  Sally Fallon, in a word, hates soy and will tell you all about it here and here. 

Here are some highlights: 

1. Soy is very hard on your digestive system.
2. The phytates in soy inhibit your body's absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.  

3. Soy contains isoflavones that are phytoestrogens (literally "plant estrogens"), which act like estrogen in your body.  One researcher "estimated that an infant exclusively fed soy formula receives the estrogenic equivalent (based on body weight) of at least five birth control pills per day." (1)  This, they argue, can cause anything from smaller testicles in males to earlier puberty in females.  

4. "Soy phytoestrogens are potent antithyroid agents that cause hypothyroidism and may cause thyroid cancer.  In infants, consumption of soy formula has been linked to autoimmune thyroid disease."(2)

If that's not enough to make you think twice about consuming soy regularly, think about this:  Soy is the second most common food allergen in this country.  I do a lot of food sensitivity blood testing using the LEAP test by Signet Diagnostic Corporation, and almost all of my LEAP clients are sensitive to it.  Not to mention that most of the soy out there is genetically modified.  Here's a rap song about GMO's.  Soy also has one of the highest pesticide contamination levels of any crop.   

The Good

To be fair, I'll give you some links to articles on the benefits of soy.  These days, though, there always seems to be at least one caveat, like "Soy is good, soy is great, but it MIGHT cause thyroid cancer..." or "You should stop eating meat because soy is better for you, but it MIGHT give your baby C cup breasts by the age of 3..."  

Here's one link at Livestrong.  Here's another one brought to you by the United Soybean Board itself.  I find it interesting that they don't cite any research for their lofty claims...  Here's one more with a list of references.  The pro soy camp claims that soy has a positive effect on high blood pressure, some cancers and weight loss, among other things.  

For every study out there saying good things, there is another study debunking it and vice versa.  There are so many variables with academic research, which is why I always ask myself, 'What would our ancestors do?'  Even without the internet, our predecessors somehow magically knew what to do with food.  When soy was first introduced as a food in China about 5,000 years ago, they would have fermented it (miso, tempeh, soy sauce) to make it easier to digest and to lower the phytoestrogen content before they even thought about putting it in their mouths.   It's also known in Asian countries that if you want your husband's libido to decrease, you feed him a lot of tofu.   By the way, soy wasn't even considered a food in the U.S. until the 1920's, before which time it was used here for things like painting Fords.  

So, if you want a protein powder, please think twice about the Odwalla Super Protein drink or GNC's super discounted soy protein "Get Ripped" formula.  Try eating whole foods instead.  Meat has lots of protein in it.  We'll talk about another option, whey protein, next week.  

Until then.




  1. So do you recommend completely avoiding soy or just limiting your intake?

    The main reason I use protein powder is because I'm a vegetarian- which I know you're not necessarily a proponent of. Maybe you could make some recommendations for people who don't eat meat?

  2. Good question, Marisa. I think that some people can tolerate soy more than others. Over time, though, it really can break down anyone's digestive system and put a burden on your immune system. I'd say if you insist on eating powders, make them organic so they're not GMO, eat them in limited quantities (not every day) and mix up your protein powders so you're not eating the same processed food over and over - that's when food sensitivities start to develop. Try hemp protein or pea protein. I'll talk about whey protein next week, but it's also one that you could throw into the mix. As I said, it's always better to eat whole foods - do you eat pastured eggs or raw dairy? Seeds, soaked nuts and beans? Those are all pretty good sources of protein for you as a vegetarian. If you're going to eat soy, try to only eat fermented soy like tempeh and miso, since they're easier to digest and contain fewer phytoestrogens. Is that helpful?

  3. Another great post, Neely. When's the book coming?

    Why is there so much conflicting (and conflicted) studies with food nutrition? Such as coffee is bad for you; coffee is good for you. Soy is good; soy is poison. I'm cynical enough to believe that some of it is rank vested market interest, but why so little actual, agreed upon science when it comes to food?

    I think you make a good point about which soy protein to use. The answer is just eat food. Real food.

    Ahh...this is making me hungry...

  4. I was just thinking about writing a book today... To answer your questions, I think there's so much conflicting and conflicted research out there because research is often flawed or incomplete in some way, and people sometimes manifest the results that they (or their sponsors) want to see. Also, there are so many constituents in foods and we've only begun to even identify them all. Even more confusing is that one constituent (like the isoflavones in soy) could legitimately have a positive effect on some cancers but a negative effect on hormone balance. One last thing is that there are a LOT of variables individually - if you have adrenal fatigue, coffee is not going to do you any good. But your friend, whose adrenals are just fine so far might not have any problem with coffee at all. I think this field will always be full of conflicting information... Thanks for the comment!