Soy. It’s a plant that has been making its rounds through the world for thousands of years and in Canada since the 19th century. It’s not just soysauce anymore; nowadays you can find soy beverages, whole soybean (edamame), soy flour, soy nuts, soy oil, textured vegetable protein (usually in your veggie burger), tofu and any other variety of soy products at your local supermarket. Fermented soy products are also readily available in the form of tamari, miso and even tempeh (which is back on the St. John’s market).

This proliferation in soy products has, undoubtedly, led to a rise in health chatter, good and bad, surrounding soy and its relation to cancers, menopause and even osteoporosis. With health claims and warnings being thrown at you, along with the dozens of soy-product options at the supermarket, health store, or even local restaurant, it can be confusing to know what to think of it all. This week, I’ll try to help you become more soy literate, by giving an overview of two of the most popular health concerns and an introduction to the types of soy products on the market (and maybe even what to do with them).

Health

Soy contains isoflavones — phytoestrogens that can mimic the hormone estrogen. Since the early 1990s, these isoflavones have been gaining interest for their suspected impact on certain types of cancer. This interest has been most notably followed up by a focus on breast cancer; one of the reasons breast cancer took focus is because of curiosity around Asian populations (where soy has historically comprised a large part of the diet) who have low breast cancer rates and/or better survival rates. The isoflavones have also gained interest from researchers concerned with menopause.

This proliferation in soy products has, undoubtedly, led to a rise in health chatter, good and bad, surrounding soy and its relation to cancers, menopause and even osteoporosis.

Over the years, studies have produced varying degrees of information on soy’s relationship with cancer, some based on animal studies, others on human. Last year a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that soy food consumption among breast cancer survivors had a “nonsignificant” impact on deaths from breast cancer, but was more significant in terms of its impact on reducing the risk of recurrence. Wading through the various findings, the American Cancer Society suggests that soy should be enjoyed in moderation for both cancer survivors and the general population alike (just like any other food should be).

Looking at menopause, a recent study, to be published this year in the journal Menopause, found that soy does not seem to have any impact on the appearance or severity of hot flashes. The study included a variety of racial and ethnic identities, but has been criticized for its methodology — it relied on “self-reporting” from patients. Meanwhile, a review and analysis of data on hot flashes and menopause was published in that same journal last year, finding that consumption of soy does reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes.

The one definitive piece of information out there is that soy (isoflavone) supplements (i.e. pills, not a cake of tempeh) should be avoided until further research is done. Another thing to be mindful of whenever you’re sifting through medical journals (or journals of any nature) is who are the authors behind these studies? Do they have interests in the soy industry, or is their research funded by the dairy lobby? Just as we’re hopefully conscious of our food consumption, we should also be conscious of our media consumption.

As with most serious health decisions, it is always best to talk to a knowledgeable health provider who you trust; together you can figure out if a tofu burger works for you or not. It’s hard not to feel consumed by all the news articles, blogs and neighbours out there who have an opinion on your health and what you eat. Try and put them on mute for a few minutes and tune into your own body – it’s the only one you got!

Te…te…tempted for tempeh?

If you choose to heed the advice of “enjoy in moderation,” here’s the low down on soy foods and how to enjoy them.

Tofu:

– firm/extra firm is great in stir frys, soups, grated into spaghetti, marinated in your favourite seasoning then fried or baked and put on a burger!

-silken tofu is great in desserts and baking. It can be used to make puddings, but can also serve as an egg replacer in dense cakes and brownies. Use ¼ cup of blended silken tofu for each egg you’re replacing.

-With all varieties, rinse the tofu before use and store any unused portions in water in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Tempeh:

-Tempeh consists of fermented soybeans packed together into little cakes by mold – not the same type you’d find on old bread, of course. It is often fermented with other items to provide different taste profiles, such as rice or coconut. A far less processed choice, tempeh is considered highly nutritious and beneficial to one’s health.

-Use tempeh as you would tofu, but also consider cutting into cubes, steaming and adding to salads. Note: many varieties on the market come marinated (though plain tempeh does exist!).

Edamame:

-these are whole soy beans. You’ve likely seen these in the supermarket – they are bright green and can be bought shelled or unshelled.

-They have a nutty flavour and can be enjoyed as a snack; added to soups and salads, or even in hummus instead of the chickpeas! Get creative.

Miso:

– Miso is made by adding soybeans, koji (fermentation starter), salt and grains (usually brown rice and/or barley) and then letting ferment anywhere between 6 months to over two years! The darker the miso variety, the saltier it will be.

-A little miso goes a long way for flavour. It’s great used as a bouillion, seasoning, or as a base for gravy. NOTE: do NOT boil miso, as doing so damages important nutrients. Instead, add to heated recipes (like soups and gravies) at the very end, after the heat has been turned off. I recommend storing miso in the refrigerator.

-Tip: try adding a teaspoon of miso to your next batch of guacamole instead of salt (and note that there are soy-free misos on the market too! Look for chickpea miso).

Tamari:

-Similar to soysauce, but without all the added wheat, corn starch and sugar. It has a slightly stronger taste, which may require some adjustment. Great in marinades and stirfrys. Available gluten free!

-Once open, I recommend storing in the fridge (will keep for many, many months). Look for it in the natural food aisle or at your local health food store.

Along with all these options, there are a lot of processed soy options on the market, such as veggie burgers, soy protein isolate and soy milk. In the name of promoting a less processed, more whole foods diet, try and limit these items and instead stress whole-food soy options, or try making your own soy milk or veggie burgers!

A quick, but important note

When talking about soy, it would be remise to ignore the reality that over 93% of American soy is genetically modified (GM). With that comes real environmental and social concerns, too big to fit into this article (but, as a starting point, see this other Indy column from a few weeks ago) For now, consider the benefits of buying organic soy (certified to be non-GM in Canada), and/or look for the certified Non-GMO Project verification when buying soy foods.

Soy, in conclusion

Soy is a versatile plant, full of nutrients, but also of mixed messaging. The consensus is that soy offers many nutritional benefits, may or may not help with hot flashes, and, unless you have an allergy, can be enjoyed in rotation with other nutrient dense foods!

Disclaimer: posts in Conscious Consumptions are not to be taken as medical advice. They are devised from the author’s own research and sometimes from conversations with health professionals. Please seek out a health-care professional if you’re considering major changes in your diet/lifestyle, or if you have questions/concerns about your health.