Is soy an ancient superfood or cancer-causing “Frankenfood?”
I can’t think of a more controversial food right now than soy, and for good reason. Some studies show it prevents breast cancer while others show it causes it. So what’s the verdict – is soy a superfood or supervillian?
The truth is, all soy is not the same.
The Soy Controversy
In Asia, soy has been eaten for centuries in high amounts. Asian women have lower rates of breast cancer and much easier menopause transitions, lower rates of heart disease, and optimal cholesterol levels. Yet, studies show conflicting results on whether soy prevents or causes certain cancers.
The confusion comes in when you look at the studies that have been done over the past 20 years. Asian epidemiological studies that show soy is a superfood are based on traditional soy foods, like tofu and miso, while the studies that show questionable or unfavorable health effects are based on isolated soy protein and soy isoflavone supplements. We are looking at the difference between a whole, natural food being prepared using traditional methods and highly processed isolated soy compounds – one is disease-fighting and health-promoting, while the other is inflammatory and causes chronic disease.
Soy as a Superfood – the Macrobiotic Approach
Over 30 years ago, when I was given the diagnosis of terminal cancer, I left the mainstream medical approach through what felt like divine intervention and turned to the macrobiotic lifestyle. As I look back on it now, I know more than ever that soy was one main reason macrobiotics worked so well for me.
George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi brought the macrobiotic lifestyle from Japan to America more than 40 years ago, because they saw how the nutrient-poor standard American diet was leading to our growing health issues. Macrobiotics is based on local, seasonal foods that have been grown organically, so their version of the diet was based on the diet of Japanese monks and the foods they cooked in their temples that led to longevity, energy, and vitality. This diet was rich in traditionally prepared, non-GMO soy foods like miso, tofu, tempeh, shoyu soy sauce, and natto.
On the macrobiotic diet I ate a lot of miso soup, and smaller amounts of fermented foods like natto and shoyu soy sauce. There are a number of health benefits in these traditionally prepared soy foods. As a whole food, soybeans are nutritionally dense, easily digested proteins, complete with all of the essential amino acids. They contain vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, like isoflavones, that are cancer-protective, heart healthy, and strengthen bones.
Naturally fermented soy contains large numbers of probiotic bacteria that support the health of your gastrointestinal tract and your body as whole. Fermenting and aging these soy products also breaks down chemicals that are known to cause problems for the thyroid when iodine is deficient, and balances the pH of your digestive tract for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption.
It is very important not to overheat these fermented foods because the good bacteria that are so important for your immune system will be destroyed. This is the reason in traditionally prepared foods like miso soup you stir in the miso or shake on the soy sauce only at the last minute before eating, so the food is warm, but not hot enough to destroy the probiotics.
These soy foods were a big part of my healing. When I first started macrobiotics, I was so weak from all the surgeries and chemo treatments I’d had that I needed someone to help me cook. Every time I ate miso soup, I could feel the strength returning to my body, and I had more energy. But there’s a big difference between these whole, natural soy foods and their processed, genetically modified counterparts.
The Dark Side of Soy
Soybeans are one of the most abundant genetically modified foods on the market today. A recent landmark lawsuit was won against Monsanto for their cancer-causing glyphosate, also known as RoundUp. This herbicide is sprayed on crops like soybeans to keep the weeds from taking over. To ensure minimal crop losses, these soybeans are genetically modified to ensure they can withstand the large amounts of this carcinogenic chemical being sprayed on them.
GMO soy products run rampant in our food supply. Restaurants use the overly processed GMO soybean oil as vegetable oil to fry their foods in, claiming it’s healthy. Soy proteins and fillers are found in everything from canned soups to instant mashed potatoes, ice cream, hot dogs, and even “health” foods like soy milk, soy yogurt (which is also high in sugar), soy cheese, soy margarine, and TVP (textured vegetable protein).
The isolated soy proteins used in these foods lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other plant substances found in the whole soybean. The amount and concentration of certain soy compounds also far exceeds what you’d find in the whole bean. These incomplete soy proteins result in inflammation and can be cancer-promoting rather than cancer-preventing.
When studies have been done supplementing just the isoflavones in soy known to have estrogenic effects, the participants developed goiters and thyroid issues if they were iodine deficient. Studies done with traditionally prepared soy foods like tofu and tempeh show no negative effect on the thyroid, regardless of iodine status.
The take-home message on soy is the same one we have with many other foods that we over-process and isolate what we think are the active components: Just Eat Real Food. Traditionally prepared and fermented whole soy foods are a healthy part of any diet. I’ve stayed cancer-free for over 30 years and have no sign of the genetic heart disease that runs in my family, and I give soy a lot of credit in my healing. Stay away from processed foods with added fillers, sugars, and junk ingredients that only cause inflammation and lead to bigger diseases down the road.