In the last decade or so an interesting phenomenon has occurred in the American diet. Soy products have gone mainstream. Soy’s popularity began as a source of protein for vegetarians, and in recent years has been touted as a potential cure-all for heart disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, hot flashes, and the answer to world hunger. Soy-based veggie burgers can now be found in fast food restaurants, with tofu dishes a common offering in some of the most exclusive restaurants. Even public schools have jumped on the bandwagon by including soy foods and additives in school lunches. How did this happen, and what exactly do we know about this upstart food?

In November, 1999 the Third International Soy Symposium was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the United Soybean Board, American Soybean Association, Monsanto, Protein Technologies International, Central Soya, Cargil Foods, Personal Products Company, SoyLife, Whitehall-Robins Healthcare and the soybean councils of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. Presentations by scientists funded by these organizations marked the culmination of a decade of research intended to win FDA approval and consumer acceptance of soy products such as tofu, soy milk, soy cheese, soy sausage, and estrogen-like compounds including isoflavones, genistein and diadzen.

As we now know, this marketing campaign was highly successful, yet many of the research studies funded by the soy industry have been challenged by independent scientists. Outspoken nutritionists such as Sally Fallon and Mary Enig go even further to point out the problems with soy and the negative impact these products can have on our health.

According to them, “Advances in technology make it possible to produce isolated soy protein [the key ingredient that imitates meat and dairy] from what was once considered a waste product—the defatted, high protein soy chips—and then transform something that looks and smells terrible into products that can be consumed by human beings. Flavorings, preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers and synthetic nutrients have turned soy protein isolate, the food processors’ugly ducking, into a New Age Cinderella.”

Apparently, until the latter part of the twentieth century, the soybean was considered unfit to eat. Ancient pictographs in China show the soybean not as a food, but as a rotation crop used to fix nitrogen in the soil. It wasn’t until the discovery of the fermentation process during the Chou Dynasty that soy became edible. The first fermented soy products were tempeh, natto, miso and soy sauce. Later, Chinese scientists discovered that a puree of cooked soybeans could be precipitated with calcium sulphate (plaster of Paris) or magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) to make a smooth pale curd known as tofu. Popularity of fermented and precipitated soy products spread to other Asian countries such as Japan and Indonesia.

The Chinese did not eat unfermented soy products because they knew that soybeans contain natural toxins or antinutrients such as phytates and enzyme inhibitors that block the action of trypsin and other protein-digesting enzymes. These toxic compounds are not deactivated during cooking and can cause gastric distress, reduced protein digestion, and chronic deficiencies in amino acids and.minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Animal studies show that diets high in trypsin inhibitors cause enlargement and disease of the pancreas, including cancer. Vegetarians who consume tofu as a substitute for meat and dairy products risk severe protein and mineral deficiencies. Zinc deficiencies are particularly common, and can cause impaired functioning of the brain and nervous system as well as blood-sugar imbalance and reproductive and immune disorders. Zinc deficiency can cause that “spacey” feeling associated with the “high” some vegetarians may mistake for spiritual enlightenment.

Soybeans also contain a clot-promoting substance called haemagglutinin that causes red blood cells to clump together. Haemagglutinin and trypsin inhibitors are both growth inhibitors, demonstrated in studies of weaning rats that failed to grow normally when fed soy. Enzyme inhibitors and growth suppressants are deactivated during the fermentation process, while in precipitated soy products such as tofu and bean curd they are concentrated in the soaking liquid but not completely eliminated from the food. Soy milk and soy cheese, however, are loaded with antinutrients.

About 15% of infants in the U.S. or approximately 750,000 children consume soy-based formula each year. Genistein, an estrogen-like substance found in infant formulas and menopause remedies may depress immune function. When mice were injected with genistein, levels of immune cells dropped and the thymus gland, where immune cells mature, shrank. This was of particular concern, since the blood levels of genistein in the injected mice were lower than the blood levels of genistein in babies fed soy-based formulas.

New research shows that high concentrations of manganese found in soy formula can lead to brain damage in infants and altered behaviors in adolescents. Dr. Francis Crinella at the University of California described how the soybean plant lifts up manganese in the soil and concentrates it, creating levels of manganese in soy formulas that are 200 times the level found in breast milk. A newborn cannot excrete this extreme manganese load, creating high manganese levels in the blood, liver, kidneys and other soft tissues of the body, including the brain. Manganese overload has been implicated in cases of brain damage and movement disorders.

Crinella’s research detected high levels of manganese in the scalp hair of hyperactive children when compared with matched control subjects. Everett Hodges, founder of the Violence Research Foundation, refers to Crinella’s research by stating, “Criminals ages 16 and 17 years old today, some of them born to poor mothers between 1983 and 1984, could have received from the government soy formula with enough manganese to disrupt growing brains, and this may be why adolescents have difficulty restraining aggressive impulses now.”

Dr. Joseph Mercola notes in his newsletter that soy formulas contain high levels of aluminum (1,000% higher levels than cow’s milk formulas) and the phytoestrogen substance isoflavones. He says that a soy-fed baby receives the equivalent of five birth control pills’ worth of estrogen every day. These babies’ isoflavone levels were found to be from 13,000 to 22,000 times higher than in non-soy fed infants. Early onset of puberty in girls and abnormal development of testes in boys have been linked to this unnatural surge of hormones in early life

Studies also show that maternal exposure during pregnancy to the phytoestrogen genistein causes an increase in the number of estrogen receptor sites in the breast tissue of female offspring, thus increasing their risk of developing breast cancer. As a result of this research pregnant women are urged not to ingest soy products.

Naomi Baumslag, clinical professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University, points out that soy formula is deficient in linoleic and oleic essential fatty acids, DHA-brain-growth factor, epidermal growth factor, lactoferrin, casomorphin and immune factors such as IgA, neutrophils, macrophages, T-cells, B-cells and interferon—all provided by the mother in breast milk to defend her baby. She says, “Only 50% of newborns today suckle at the mother’s breast even once. After six months, the number has fallen to only one in five. Often mothers, for the sake of convenience, plunk soy bottles into the infant’s mouth. Why do so many mothers in the United States imagine they have given birth to a baby soybean instead of a human child?”

Soy also contains goitrogens which are substances that depress thyroid function in infants and adults. Studies show that premenopausal women who ingested 45 mg of soy isofalavones per day experienced a reduction in hormones needed for adequate thyroid function, lasting for 3 months after soy consumption was discontinued. In addition, soy is high in oxalate, a compound that binds with calcium in the formation of kidney stones. Oxalates are particularly high in textured soy protein, often used as a meat substitute.

Claims that a diet rich in soy can prevent cancer are based on the observation that the Japanese, who eat 30 times as much soy as North Americans, have a lower incidence of cancers of the breast, uterus and prostate. Fallon and Enig point out that Asians in general have much higher rates of other types of cancer, particularly cancer of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver and thyroid. Asians typically eat mostly fermented soy products which are usually accompanied by meat in the same meal which may offset some of soy’s negative effects.

Even soy-based animal feed has been shown to disrupt normal development in animals as well as induce disease conditions that are not normally present with their natural diet.

Most soy products on the market today are genetically engineered which creates a whole new set of problems. Government subsidies have enticed farmers to convert many of their crops from “real food” to soy. Internationally, IMF money funds soy processing plants in foreign countries, and free trade policies encourage soy distribution around the world.

The global campaign to convert the world’s food supply to a substance that is difficult to digest, causes nutritional deficiencies, and contributes to disease is well under way.   As always, the choice is ours.