Superbean no more: Soy may be out of magic

  1. Post Superbean no more: Soy may be out of magic

    Superbean no more: Soy may be out of magic

    By Hilary E. MacGregor
    Los Angeles Times

    When soy burst onto the Western food scene in the early 1990s, the possibilities seemed boundless. The protein-packed legume had potential to prevent breast cancer, increase bone mass, alleviate hot flashes. It seemed to lower cholesterol, and thus to help prevent heart disease.

    Millions of dollars were poured into research, and technologists plopped soy into every food imaginable. They ground it into burgers, hot dogs and sausages (Tofurky was born). They processed it into cheese, milk, ice cream and baby formula.

    Purists consumed soy in its traditional Asian forms tofu, "tempeh" or "edamame" while health nuts sought out soy protein powder or isoflavone-packed supplements.

    But 15 years later, with ever more soy products available and conspicuous soy consumption a cultural shorthand for "Hey, I'm health-conscious!" the tides are turning.

    Call it the "soy backlash."

    A crop of books and articles now warn about the dangers, not benefits, of the bean.

    An international watchdog group, the Soy Online Service, has made it a mission to "uncover the truth about soy" and tell us about "the plethora of criminal and dangerous lies that issue from the soy industry."

    Overdose on soy, we're warned, and, as the men's magazine Best Life suggests, we could "Grow man boobs! Shed muscle tone! Boost estrogen! Saps your sex drive!"

    These are extremists. But even mainstream scientists are pulling back. New research shows soy is no magic bullet.

    Yet scientists also see soy's fall from grace as the latest casualty in Americans' endless search for a single substance that can change your life.

    Plenty of protein

    The vegetable in the hairy pod is a complicated bean. Native to China and Japan, it's termed "king of legumes" because it has the most complete protein of any member of the pea family. It's high in calcium, magnesium and vitamin B, and contains estrogen-like chemicals, isoflavones.

    Soy has had its share of celebrity champions. Henry Ford created a car made of plastic from soybeans, wore a soybean suit and soy-fiber tie at public functions and served a 15-item soy menu at the 1934 World's Fair.

    But it was in the 1990s that evidence of soy's possible benefits began to mount, and books and magazines ran with it. "Are soy isoflavones the women's health powerhouse?" asked a 1997 article in the newsletter Nutrition Reporter, adding that soy might be "the ultimate women's health supplement of the 21st century."

    The market for soy exploded.

    In the past decade, the average growth rate of soy products has been about 14 percent a year, says Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, a soy-industry information firm. Even now, he says, sales continue to grow, albeit less briskly.

    Crumbling reputation

    Perhaps no food could withstand the hype heaped on soy. But with more rigorous examination, the bean's starry promise seems to be crumbling.

    In January, the American Heart Association published an advisory pulling back on its 2000 stance on soy, which had recommended "including soy protein foods in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol."

    January's statement said that a review of 22 studies showed that soy protein with isoflavones did not, after all, seem to improve cholesterol.

    This April, there was more bad news. Many women consume soy or soy supplements in the hope of preventing breast cancer, but a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute concluded that though soy may very slightly reduce the risk of breast cancer, it's not enough to recommend it.

    For breast-cancer survivors, taking soy supplements (as opposed to soy-based food) could actually be ill-advised, says study co-author Robert Clarke, a professor at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

    Unlike soy foods, supplements contain high levels of estrogen-like isoflavones, such as one called genistein. And estrogens coax breast-tumor cells to divide, says co-author Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, a professor of oncology at Georgetown.

    The hot-flash connection also has begun to erode. In early trials, soy isoflavones reduced hot flashes by 9 to 40 percent in menopausal women, but most of the 25 or so trials done later showed no difference from placebos.

    A few scientists are actually voicing fears about soy's safety.

    Some are worried about reproductive problems. Last year, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) found that mice given genistein right after birth developed irregular reproductive cycles and problems with ovulation and fertility. This year, they reported that genistein disrupted the development of ovaries.

    "Whether these things cause problems in humans, we just don't know," says Wendy Jefferson, an NIEHS scientist and the paper's lead researcher. "But so many babies are on soy formulas. If these things are going to be a problem it is a problem that would only manifest later, when a woman was trying to get pregnant, or having reproductive-cycle problems."

    The research led an independent panel of 14 scientists to meet in March and decide whether soy formula is hazardous to human development or reproduction.

    The panel concluded that soy formula was safe but one pediatrician on the panel expressed concerns, saying exposure to soy formula occurs during a critical time in infancy and might possibly affect development of the brain and reproductive system.

    Positive spins

    Even as some soy fears grow and much of its promise is being shot down, new possibilities are popping up.

    A recent study suggested that if women consume soy during the third trimester of pregnancy, it could help program fetuses with a craving for healthful foods and a good metabolism.

    Others suggest that when women eat soy could be key. Research by Anna Wu, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, suggests that girls who eat a lot of soy during adolescence may be less likely to get breast cancer later.

    And bone strength may be one place where soy really delivers. A three-year, $3.4 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health is testing whether soy isoflavone supplements can help preserve bone in the lower part of the lumbar spines in post-menopausal women.

    Get real!

    Nutritionists watch the very public taking down of soy with bemusement and slight exasperation. Many point out that meta-analyses (which pool results of different studies) are not the best way to judge a food or medicine.

    But they also see the fall of soy as part of the cycle of pop culture, be it celebrity or bean: Hoist it up to impossible heights, then drag it down and bash it. The truth, they say, is somewhere in the middle.

    If anything is problematic, nutritionists say, it is the quintessentially American habit of assuming that if a little of something is good, then a lot must be really good. Eat soy as a food, they add. It would be nearly impossible to overdose.

    And be realistic.

    "If a drug company came up and said 'We are going to develop a product that reduces the risk of heart disease, reduces the rate of prostate cancer, that alleviates hot flashes and does good things for bone, and that doesn't have any side effects,' they would be laughed out of the room," says Dr. Gregory Burke, a professor in the department of Health Sciences at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

    But just because soy is not a magic cure for hot flashes and breast cancer does not mean it isn't a good food.

  2. Yick! They can keep their soy. Never have been fond of it.

  3. SOy is bad for me for two reasons, raises estrogen and limits the ability to absorb thyroid meds.

  4. I'm new here so these may have already been posted, but there are three articles over on T-Nation about how Soy may be a bad idea for men and especially bodybuilders.

    Testosterone Nation - Bad Protein - A Testosterone Consumer Report
    Testosterone Nation - The Evils of Soy
    Testosterone Nation - Soy is Still Bad Protein

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