Dangers of soy

Photo: istockphoto.com/Steve Lovegrove
The poster bean for the vegetarian movement is under scrutiny these days. It turns those virtuous tofu hotdogs and skinny soya latte are not exactly blessed with an aura of health. Organic vs. GM There are two crucial distinctions to be made about soy when considering using it as a food source First, is it organic soy or genetically modified soy? In North America between 75 percent to 89 percent of the soy beans grown are genetically modified (GM) soy. The whole debate over GMO foods is becoming controversial as more scientists report their findings of toxicity and cancer-promoting properties in GM food products on the market. In autumn of 2005, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation held an international symposium featuring scientists whose research had raised concerns about the health dangers of genetically modified foods. There is enough concern that many European countries are looking at a ban and even Africa has started refusing GMO products. Hard to avoid You may think you are actively avoiding soy by avoiding tofu and other soy products but GM soy is present in the majority of processed foods, about 60 percent -- usually as filler or oil. So it's being unknowingly consumed by millions every day. Since neither Canada nor the U.S. requires any safety testing on GM food products, so the consumer is essentially being treated as a guinea pig. One bad, one good The second crucial question is whether the soy product is fermented or unfermented. Unfermented soy products, such as soy milk, tofu, soy burgers, soy nuts, soy formula, soy chips and soy ice cream - contain high levels of phytic acid or phytates which block the absorption of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and especially zinc in the intestinal tract. Unfermented soy also contains trypsin inhibitors and hemaglutinin that stunt human growth. Health risks According to an article in The Guardian , researchers have discovered that consuming unfermented soy may be linked to reduced male fertility, increased cancer risk, damaged brain function, developmental abnormalities in infants, and early onset of puberty. The Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit nutrition research organization, supports these findings with other scientific studies detailing the health dangers of unfermented soy. Dangers for babies The most serious problem with soy may be its use in infant formulas. Most of the fears concerning soy formula are around the high level of estrogens. Professor Richard Sharpe, head of the Medical Research Council's human reproductive sciences unit at Edinburgh University, recently completed studies on soya milk and testosterone levels and found a link between the amount of soy consumed and lower hormone levels. "Soya formula milk is a [recent] western invention. There is not the historical evidence to show it is safe," said Dr. Sharpe. The healthy alternative Fermented soy products, on the other hand, ARE good for us in moderation. These include miso, tempeh, natto and tamari sauce. The fermentation process removes the phytates, trypsin inhibitors and heaglutinin. Fermented soy foods have long been a staple in Asian diets and are generally beneficial when combined with other foods such as rice, sea foods, fish broth, organ meats and fermented vegetables. The traditional Asian diet contributes to lower levels of cancer, heart disease, and increased bone density. Moderation is important While there are benefits to organic fermented soy moderation is recommended. As explained by Dr. Marina Zelenovic, a nutrition consultant, North American soil is full of aluminum, and soybeans has the unique ability (for a plant) to uptake it from the soil and pass it on to the consumer where it is toxic to brain function and the kidneys. Joyce Nelson is an environmental journalist based in Toronto.