Soybean foods are a way to eat healthy while providing nutritious natural healing for your body.
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In the past several years, soy has received significant and seemingly well-deserved scientific and commercial attention. It’s a food that offers many health benefits, including the ability to help prevent osteoporosis, reduce the risk of heart disease in both men and women, prevent and reduce cancer risk, and reduce perimenopausal symptoms. Soybeans also contain antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Increased mainstream interest in soy has prompted the development of soy alternatives to many common foods, including tofu hot dogs, soy cheese, soy milk, soy yogurt, soy bacon, soy sausage links, and soy burgers. The increased consumption of soy health-food products is evidenced by the increase in soy milk sales alone, from $2 million in 1980 to $300 million in 1999.
Soybean Foods and Protective Phytochemicals
The health benefits of soy are primarily attributed to a group of chemical constituents in soybeans known as isoflavones, which in turn belong to a class of chemicals known as phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens. Isoflavones are strikingly similar in structure to the estrogens produced by the body, and they demonstrate a variety of hormonal and nonhormonal actions when ingested. Soybeans are particularly high in these interesting compounds, but phytoestrogens are also found in most legumes and are widely distributed in other foods, especially leafy green vegetables. Most commercial soy foods, made from whole soybeans and isolated or purified soy proteins, contain appreciable and bioactive quantities of isoflavones, with the exception of soy oil and soy lecithin, which do not contain any.
Soybean Foods: Too Many Chemicals for Kids?
There is general consensus that soy-rich diets can be beneficial to adults, but some members of the scientific community speculate that too many isoflavones in the diet can have deleterious effects, particularly on the developing reproductive systems of fetuses and infants. For more than thirty years, soy formula has been given to babies with little concern for adverse effects. However, recent human studies have confirmed that there is a strong correlation between a diet containing soy products and significant changes in the reproductive system. This has led to new concerns about the regular use of soy formula for infants, and perhaps even soy foods for children.
Several scientific studies demonstrate a strong correlation between soy and hormonal activity. It’s known that premenopausal women given a diet high in soy foods experience a lengthening of the menstrual cycle. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, a longer menstrual cycle of thirty to thirty-two days is associated with significantly decreased rates of cancer in Asian women. However, scientists are uncertain as to the effects of high doses of isoflavones in babies and children and cite that in other mammalian species (such as sheep), there have been clearly demonstrable harmful effects to the reproductive capacity as a result of grazing on large quantities of isoflavone-rich plants.
One study from England, the Avon Study, revealed an increased incidence of hypospadias (an abnormal congenital opening of the male urethra on the underside of the penis) in human infants born to vegetarian mothers. The researchers attributed this to a greater exposure of these babies in utero to higher concentrations of phytoestrogens. Studies have confirmed that phytoestrogens from soy can be found in the amniotic fluid after mothers have consumed isoflavone-rich foods, thus passing transplacentally from mother to fetus. Infants taking soy-based formulas are receiving isoflavone quantities five to ten times greater than the amount required to induce changes in the human menstrual cycle. In older children, isoflavones are present in large quantities in the majority of soy foods that they consume. Most studies, however, indicate that the use of soy formula in infants has not led to hormonal changes in children, all the way through puberty.
Soy and Food Allergies
Another concern over soy foods for kids is that soy is one of the most common food allergens. Food allergies play a primary role in the development of such chronic health problems as atopic dermatitis and asthma, as well as inflammatory bowel disorders. Indeed, soy products can be hard to digest at any age, unless they are fermented prior to eating or are eaten in small quantities as a part of a varied diet. Nutrition researchers internationally are now widely suggesting that whenever possible, breast milk and dairy-based infant formulas are preferable to soy-based formulas. Most soy allergies are outgrown, but effects of food allergies in early life can lead to long-term patterns of eczema, asthma, and bowel troubles.
Soy: A Nutritional Supplement, not Substitute
Many parents recognize that dairy is not always healthy for children and that it, too, can contribute to the development of food allergies. Some parents have put their babies and toddlers on health-food beverage alternatives, often soy milk. This practice can lead to mild subclinical deficiencies or severe nutritional deficiencies and failure to thrive, which I have seen in my own practice and which also led to two cases reported in the medical literature of babies hospitalized for severe nutritional disorders. Members of the medical community suspect that this problem is widely underreported. Soy milk and other nondairy beverages are not alternatives to proper infant formula and should never be used as substitutes for these.
Soy milk does not meet the nutritional requirements for many nutrients for older children, either. For example, one study reveals that most commercial soy milks that are fortified with calcium actually provide only 50 percent of the amount claimed on the package because the form of calcium typically used is not highly absorbable. This could easily be rectified with increased calcium added to the diet in the form of other calcium-rich foods or a calcium supplement. Soy milk and alternative beverages, however, cannot be relied upon to provide adequate dietary calcium.
Many children are accustomed to having sweet drinks, particularly fruit juice, throughout the day, a practice that frequently leads to undernutrition due to curbed appetite. Many parents mistakenly assume that soy milk is a healthy alternative to cow’s milk and juice. Although it can be a healthful beverage on an occasional basis, as a daily beverage it may pose many of the same nutritional problems as other sweet drinks—it also reduces the appetite and may prevent children from eating adequate quantities of other foods. Furthermore, regular consumption of sweet beverages by children can lead to decreased immunity and a greater susceptibility to colds and upper- respiratory infections—especially ear infections, leading to some of the same problems as regular consumption of cow’s milk. Soy milk is best used as an occasional beverage, in cereal, and as part of a meal.
Soybean Foods and Low Thyroid
There has also been concern raised in the medical literature that regular consumption of soy foods might inhibit thyroid function, leading to hypothyroidism. Soy-based infant formula has been shown to reduce thyroxine levels in infants with congenital hypothyroidism, requiring supplementation with thyroxine while the infants are consuming soy infant formula. However, the goitrogenic qualities of soy foods may depend most on the overall diet rather than the actual inclusion of soy in the diet. In fact, cruciferous vegetables (including cabbage, kale, broccoli, and collards) are much higher in goitrogens than soy. Although the medical literature does not support the need to avoid the moderate use of soy foods in healthy children or adults, concern about soy and thyroid disease has not been entirely laid to rest.
Sensible Soy Solutions
So what are parents to do? Should soy foods be eliminated from the diet? Are they safe for children to consume regularly?
There’s a lot that’s unknown about soy foods in children’s diets. At this point, scientists have more questions about it than answers. But we can look to common sense and traditional usage to guide our use. The benefits of including soy in the diet, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis, are evident and appear to be greatest when soy is consumed from early childhood, as is typical in traditional Asian diets. It seems clear that there is great benefit in including soy in the diet from early childhood, but in sensible ways, and as part of an overall healthy diet. Soy is much more than phytoestrogens and other chemicals—it’s a traditional food with a long history of use and can provide many lifelong protective health benefits to us and to our children. Here are some guidelines for the safe consumption of soy foods.
• High levels of soy consumption during pregnancy might expose babies to excessive estrogen levels at a fragile time, and therefore it may be prudent for pregnant women, especially pregnant vegetarians, to rely on a wide variety of sources of protein and consume soy products only in moderation. Avoid high-isoflavone products such as soy supplement powders, and primarily rely on traditional sources of soy such as tofu, tempeh, and miso.
• After birth, breastfeeding is best whenever possible. While isoflavones are present in large quantities in infant soy formula, none have been found in cow’s milk. The isoflavone content of breast milk, regardless of whether the mothers consumed large quantities of soy products, is negligible and insignificant compared to the amounts in soy formula. If you are unable to breastfeed, use soy formula as an alternative to dairy formula only if your baby cannot tolerate dairy. Check with your doctor or midwife about fortified goat’s milk as an alternative to other infant supplements. Never use soy milk as a substitute for proper infant formula or breast milk. Consider waiting until after children are toddlers to introduce soy milk into the diet to prevent food allergies and nutritional deficiencies.
• Most commercial soy products are not traditional foods and are highly processed to achieve their consistency, taste, and appearance. Use soy foods as dietary staples only in their traditional forms—tofu, tempeh, miso, and tamari. Traditionally, soy foods are marinated and well-cooked before being consumed. Soy milk is found in some traditional Asian fare but is not consumed regularly—certainly not on a daily basis. Fermented soy foods are easier to digest, provide the healthy, protective isoflavones needed for beneficial effects, and are lower in phytates, substances found in many grains and legumes that, when consumed in excessive amounts, can interfere with the absorption of minerals. It is not necessary, however, to completely avoid phytates. Some phytic acid in the diet helps chelate heavy metals and thus prevents their accumulation in the body.
Natural Healing Calendar
American Herbalists Guild Symposium 2001: From Plants to Medicines: Honoring Our Relationship to Nature’s Pharmacy. November 9–11 in the Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia. The symposium will include more than forty workshops by herbalists including Lesley Tierra, Amanda McQuade Crawford, David Winston, Aviva Romm, and Christopher Hobbs. Separate tracks are available for students and advanced clinicians, with continuing education available for nurses, pharmacists, and naturopathic doctors. Contact the AHG, Canton, GA; www.americanherbalist.com.
New Year’s in Peru for 2002. December 27, 2001–January 10, 2002 in the Amazon rain forest. Experience the rain forest, the sacred Inca valley, and Machu Picchu with James Duke and Linda Green. Contact Linda Green, Port Clinton, OH; www.omnigreen.com.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Soy and Kids,” Herbs for Health, Loveland, Colorado, or e-mail us at HerbsForHealth @ HCPress.com.