Soy: Healthy or Harmful?

No doubt you're aware of genetically modified foods now that the election has passed. Unfortunately, Prop 37 in California, the proposition requiring food manufacturers to label whether or not their products contain genetically modified organisms (GMO), did not pass. What did happen in this country, however, was a national awareness that can only grow from here. The main GMO crops in the States are corn, soy, cotton, and sugar beets. Corn is a whole other issue in itself, but today I'd like to address soy, not just because of the genetically modified aspect, but the many other health concerns surrounding it.

The other night, I made a sprouted tofu stir fry. It was surprisingly delicious (tofu inherently tastes... blah) and took no time at all. For the record, I had never purchased tofu until last week. Why? Read on.

As you may know by now, I've recently changed my diet after years of living with dietary restrictions. I was avoiding any foods containing soy, eggs, and cow's milk (3 of the top 8 food allergens) for 8 years because of some unearthed food intolerances caused by years of unhealthy eating and a diet full of processed junk. However, in the past year, I've been able to incorporate both soy and eggs back into my diet without issue. It's taken a while, and a big learning curve, but it happened without the help of doctors, medicine, or tests. (The cow's milk is still something I avoid and probably always will, but that's okay - I don't miss it!)

Eggs, as we know, are highly nutritious, full of protein, carotenoids, and B vitamins, so I was happy to add them back into my diet. Of course, the quality of egg matters a lot - when shopping for eggs, make sure you look for pastured or at the very least organic or from a local independent farm. The terms "free-range" and cage-free" don't mean much, I'm sorry to say.

Soy however is another story. It is an overgrown crop (we have the GMO industry to thank for that), so we find it in EVERYTHING in the States. Have a look at the ingredients list on a box of cereal/loaf of bread/bar of chocolate/bag of chips these days. Chances are pretty good you'll see "soybean oil" or "soy lecithin" or "soy flour" in there. It's cheap to produce and morph into these ingredients - soybean oil is far cheaper than olive oil, say. However, I'm not interested in foods that contain such long lists of ingredients - avoiding them for the 8 years only made me eat healthier and cleaner. So, what about whole soy foods, like the beans themselves, or tofu, or tempeh?

Soy Health Benefits

Soy is a great vegetarian source of protein, iron, and omega-3s, but the source is beyond important. Don't bother at all unless you're sure the soy you're consuming is both non-GMO (while not required, many products do label this) and organic. If you find soy to be difficult to digest, consider occasionally consuming fermented soy products, such as tempeh or miso, again choosing high quality.

Soy Health Concerns

There is a lot of controversy around the health impacts of consuming soy, particularly for women. Do a Google search about soy and cancer, and you'll find plenty of articles saying soy is cancer-preventive and just as many saying soy is cancer-causing. The same goes for soy's effects on the thyroid. However, research is still fairly inconclusive in either case - what we can say is that consuming soy more than three times a day (in other words, at therapeutic levels) shouldn't be done without consulting a doctor or nutrition consultant first.

The key here is moderation and being picky. Don't eat soy too often, but do choose the highest quality soy products you can find. If you're vegetarian and rely on soy as the basis of your diet, I urge you to mix in other protein sources, such as eggs, yogurt, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and quinoa. Variety is essential!

Soy Products to Choose

For each of the products below, these same rules apply: CHOOSE NON-GMO & ORGANIC!

  • SOYBEANS (sometimes prepared as edamame at Japanese restaurants) are full of protein and are the source of all the various forms of soy we see at the supermarket now. When part of a rounded diet that includes legumes of all shapes and sizes (like lentils, chickpeas, and beans) whole soybeans are great to have every now and then.
  • SOY MILK is something I don't recommend you choose when avoiding dairy milk. It is always highly processed, usually loaded with preservatives and sweeteners, and contains very few nutrients. Instead, I'd urge you to try almond (or other nut/seed) milk, hemp milk, or coconut milk, all of which carry health-giving properties, are gentler on the system, and can be made at home!
  • TOFU (sometimes referred to as "bean curd" on restaurant menus) is made from curdled soy milk and comes in varying degrees of texture, ranging from soft (or "silken") to extra firm. For greater digestibility (we Westerners lack the inherent soy digestive enzymes that Easterners possess, as they have been consuming soy for centuries), choose sprouted or fermented tofu.
  • TEMPEH is a cake or patty made from fermented soybeans. This fermentation process enables us to digest the protein in soy much better, and increases the bioavailability of the other nutrients contained in soy (such as calcium and manganese). It acts as a wonderful meat substitute, given its texture, and is best when marinated for several hours before cooking, like in this recipe.
  • MISO is an antioxidant-rich paste made from fermented soybeans. It is full of friendly bacteria and can be either light or dark, which identifies the strength in flavor. Choosing a good quality miso paste is essential, and it should always be kept in the fridge. Add a little spoonful to soups instead of salt, or create wonderful dressings and sauces by adding a dollop of miso paste.
  • SOY SAUCE is made from soybeans and wheat. It's packed with sodium and usually very highly processed. For this reason, I recommend two alternatives: tamari or Bragg's Liquid Aminos. Tamari is wheat-free soy sauce, and is usually more traditionally made than generic soy sauce bottles usually found on supermarket shelves. And Bragg's is a fabulous, high-quality alternative to soy sauce that is wheat-free and contains no preservatives, colorings, flavorings, or chemicals and is certified non-GMO.

Sprouted Tofu & Veggie Stir Fry

by The Particular Kitchen

Prep Time: 20 mins

Cook Time: 10 mins

Keywords: stir-fry entree gluten-free vegan vegetarian wheat free