What's so terrible about soy?

Some of you may know that I’m a chocolatier. A lot of chocolate contains soy lecithin as an emulsifier, so consequently I get asked pretty frequently whether my chocolate has soy in it. The funny thing is that dietary concerns seem to change with location. In Portland and Seattle, questions about gluten, dairy and soy are fairly common. Yesterday and today I was at a more rural event and had exactly one question about gluten, one ‘is it vegan’ and zero soy inquiries. Consequently I suspect that there is some bandwagon-jumping among urbanites.

So what is supposedly so terrible about soy? I realize that there can be hormonal consequences for some people from eating too much soy and also that much of it is genetically modified. And probably a few people are allergic. But unless you’re seriously allergic to soy, how is the amount in an ounce or two of chocolate a concern? BTW, I use European couverture that is non GMO. And I do enjoy tofu from time to time and am somehow still alive.

Any insight?

The biggest problem, for me, is that its in soooooo many things! A little here, a little there, more in this, some in that… Even canned tuna and tea bags!

My Dr. told me to avoid it like the plague and that, along with avoiding plastics, canned food and other xenoestrogens has really helped in straightening out my hormone imbalance (which effects everything from eneegy levels to cancer risk.) apparently estrogen dominance is fairly common so it may be why a number of people ask.

I cannot speak for everyone, nor am I attempting to explain the world . . . However, for those people who have gluten sensitivities or who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, the issue with soy is not with soy per se. Rather, it is with soy sauce, as it contains wheat. (Tamari does not.)

My daughter cannot have gluten. She cannot have soy sauce. But she loves Asian food, eats tofu regularly, and always carries little packets of tamari in her purse.


Gee, you think??? :wink:

There are certainly people on the planet who, like my daughter, cannot have gluten – just as there are people who are highly sensitive to sulfites. But every time there is something in the news about gluten, or sulfites, the number of people claiming / self-diagnosing they are sensitive or allergic to gluten or sulfites¹ or something else that’s been in their foods for years (and which has never caused them any issues) will increase dramatically.

¹ It’s actually impossible to be allergic to sulfites, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from claiming they are. But again, to be clear, there are some people who absolutely need to be extremely careful about consuming foods or beverages with sulfites, just as some must be extremely careful re: gluten, or other things that must be avoided “like the plague” to prevent serious, even life-threatening, medical issues.

My understanding of the central issue with soy, other than how ubiquitous it is, is the form in which it appears. Studies of negative effects seem to point to healthful inclusion of whole or fermented whole soy products, but not all the soy protein and other isolates in foods.

I steer away from soy products, but not soy foods, though I don’t eat them super often.

Yes, much bandwagon jumping.

Soy contains phytoestrogens, so its inclusion in foods scares some people. A psychological barrier akin to women who need supplemental testosterone refusing it because they fear turning mannish.

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There is actually some evidence out there that at least some fermented wheat items are OK. Seems that fermentation affects/disables the enzyme or whatever it is that creates the issue. My wife is a celiac sufferer, but can consume normal soy sauce and true sourdough bread (made with levain–hard to find) without a problem. I’m not recommending it to you or anyone, but it’s been our experience. Google for more info.

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and therein lies the rub – with allergies, there’s no hard-and-fast rule.

I know people with food allergies who are okay if they just don’t actually eat that food - I know others for whom cross-contamination is an issue – one friend is okay just not eating shrimp, but another one for whom french fries fried in the same oil used to fry shrimp leaves them scrambling for their epi-pen on the way to the hospital.

Lactose-intolerance? One friend can have cream sauces, another can eat yoghurt and cheese, and another can’t be near any of it.

That’s the aggravating factor – no two people react the same to a given trigger…and even the same person may not react the same way to a given trigger at different point in their life.

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There are a very small number of people with actual soy allergies/sensitivities. But there is zero evidence that soy phytoestrogens have any actual hormonal effect on humans. Soy in all its forms has been used for centuries in Asia with no ill effect.

Just as I roll my eyes at people who avoid gluten because of the silly hype around it, I roll my eyes at people who freak out about soy.

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People who have had breast cancer and are taking certain anti-cancer drugs are often told to avoid soy products. (“Tamoxifen and similar drugs are prescribed for some breast cancer
survivors because they can block the effects of the body’s estrogen. At
this time researchers are unsure whether soy can work with Tamoxifen to
block estrogen or if soy makes Tamoxifen less effective which could
increase the chance of cancer recurrence.” [http://www.oncolink.org/coping/article.cfm?c=464&id=1239].

There is some debate as to how completely one should avoid say, but as my friend says, “Why risk it?” This does cut down considerably on her choices (for example, the only chocolates she can find without soy lechithin are Perugina and Divine). She plans on stocking up on stuff in general every Passover. :slight_smile:


Jason, I am aware of the soy sauce issue for celiacs, what I’m talking about here is the soy lecithin added to most chocolate in small amounts, like 0.1% to 0.5% to adjust viscosity. Chocolate events do tend to attract a lot of middle aged women, so maybe as WeezieD mentioned the concern is about estrogen. Personally I have a hard time worrying about a tenth of a percent of something in my food (we’re not talking ricin here) but I guess some people find it better to have a zero tolerance policy than to find a manageable level. And there ARE soy-free chocolate options out there so I can see why the concerned population would inquire.

I just found it funny that I got through 3/4 of this event in a more rural location without a single gluten or soy question, when at downtown big-city events they are fairly frequent. The people didn’t look any different on the outside!

I understand the gluten, dairy and nut allergies that can be severe. I just wasn’t sure if soy was in the allergen/anaphalactic category, or if Gwynneth Paltrow or Oprah or the Food Babe etc had told their followers that soy was the devil. Juxtapose that with soy milk and tofu being considered by so many to be healthy alternatives to animal milk and meat and hence my curiosity.

There are actually quite a lot of studies in humans and animals demonstrating significant hormonal effects of soy isoflavones. Some are positive, some are deleterious and some are specific to certain conditions, such as thyroid disease. In fact, the purported health benefits, if they are real, are attributed in large measure to hormone receptor blockade by phytoestrogens.

There isn’t any evidence that soy acts like estrogen in the human body, as some people like to claim.

But a quick search suggests that soy isoflavones are either not present or very low in soy lecithin, so even if they are a problem, the tiny amount of lecithin in chocolate shouldn’t be.

Those people would include my gynecological oncologist. After I had a hysterectomy
for cancer 11 years ago, she told me to stop taking the soy isoflavones I had begun at the start of menopause 4 years earlier. I continue to follow that advice. Soy in general was not regarded as problematic.

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My mother was diagnosed (by a special clinic at Princeton U) as allergic to sulfites. The worst part for her was that limited her choice of wines to just a handful, but then she discovered she could drink champagne instead. So all’s well that ends well!

It was my doctor that told me to avoid soy, only because my estrogen levels were already extremely high. I’m not all nutty about a little bit here or there though.

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“some people” being the oncologists and ob/gyns of every woman I know who have battled breast, ovarian, or cervical cancer…

if you have education/experience beyond these folks, please carry on.


My education is that ob/gyns are extremely paranoid about soy right now, given the few studies that have left its effects vague. I’d be paranoid, too, if I was advising people on breast cancer treatment. So, sure, if you’re battling cancer, and your doctor says you should avoid soy while it’s still being studied, I’d avoid soy.

For someone just enjoying a piece of chocolate, or considering whether to have tofu for lunch or not, they don’t need to worry that it’s going to give a man breasts or make a woman manly.

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The problem here is one of terminology.

Allergies ¹

An altered reactivity to an antigen ("substances that are recognized by the Immune System and induce an immune reaction"²), which can result in pathologic reactions upon subsequent exposure to that particular antigen.

One can have a reaction to the chemical “sulfites,” but not an allergy, despite the fact that the word “allergy” is used to describe the reaction all the time. (After all, it is a term that all lay-people will understand.)

Allergies and Sulfite Sensitivity³

Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that may occur naturally or may be added to food as an enhancer and preservative. The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to the compounds. A person can develop sensitivity to sulfites at any time in life, and the trigger for the sensitivity is unknown. For a person who is sensitive to sulfites, a reaction can be mild or life threatening.

In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw, such as lettuce or apples. Regulations also require manufacturers who use sulfites in their processed products to list the compounds on their product labels.

Although sulfites are no longer used on most fresh foods, they still can be found in a variety of cooked and processed foods. They also occur naturally in the process of making wine and beer. (Emphasis added.)

Avoiding foods that contain or are likely to contain sulfites is the only way to prevent a reaction. If you are sensitive to sulfites, be sure to read the labels on all food items. When eating out, ask the chef or server if sulfites are used or added to food before or during preparation.

Sulfites are found in sparkling wines just as they are found in still wines. They occur naturally in all wines, period! There is NO SCIENTIFIC REASON why someone who has a sensitivity to sulfites – which is a very real, and (in some people) a potentially life-threatening problem! – could freely consume sparkling wines (including Champagne), but not table wines.

Indeed, because sulfites are a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, wines cannot be labeled as “sulfite free.” They can be labeled as “No Sulfites Added,” but not as having no sulfites whatsoever.

Finally, let me urge ANYONE wanting to know more about this very important subject to do the research themselves. The following is excerpted from an article written by Professor Andrew L. Waterhouse, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Viticulture & Enology Department at the University of California, Davis:


(Beginning paragraphs omitted)

The medical literature has virtually no reports on sulfites inducing headache. There are many studies of sulfites and asthmatic responses, and a few of these address sulfites in wine. A few studies from Australia shows that even with extremely sensitive people, there is only an asthmatic response in a small number of sensitive subjects (4 out of 24) for a single drink (150 ml) at extremely high sulfite levels-300 mg/liter or 45 mg. No effects were seen at lower levels, such as 150 mg/liter, or with several increasing doses up to 750 mg/liter! See H Valley and PJ Thompson, Role of sulfite additives in wine induced asthma: single dose and cumulative dose studies, Thorax 56:763-769 (2001). Link

There are many erroneous ideas about sulfites, so to put the record straight:

  • All wines contain sulfites. Yeast naturally produce sulfites during fermentation so there is only a rare wine which contains none.
  • The US requires a “sulfite” warning label and Australia requires a label indicating “preservative 220,” but nearly all winemakers add sulfites, including those in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, etc etc. So, the wine you drink in foreign countries contains sulfites, but you just are not being warned about it when purchased abroad. Survey studies show that European wines contain an average of 80 mg/L sulfites just as in the US.
  • There are a few (very few) winemakers who make wines without adding sulfites. In the US, organic wine must be made without added sulfites. These are unusual because the wine is very perishable and often have unusual aromas from the aldehydes that are normally bound and rended aroma-less by the sulftes. In Europe organic wines are call bio- but sulfites are allowed in production, but not in those exported to the US. The term “natural” winemaking is used in Europe for no-sulfite-added wines. Look for these wines at natural food stores.
  • There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches! There is something in red wine that causes headaches, but the cause has not yet been discovered. Refer to the Bakalinsky article above. To avoid these common headaches, try drinking less wine, and drink with food. If you think sulfites are causing your headache, try eating some orange-colored dried apricots, and let me know if that induces a headache. If not, sulftes are not the likely culprit. These bright colored dried fruits typically have 2000 mg/kg sulfites, so a two ounce serving (56 gm) should contain about 112 mg sulfites. It is certainly possible that sulfites cause headaches, but as noted above, there is no data available. Feel free to send a memo to the NIH suggesting this be the target of future research so the question can be addressed.

(Article continues at length)

AGAIN, sensitivity to sulfites can be a serious, even life-threatening, medical issue for a few people, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there.

¹ Source: http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/definitions-a/allergy.html
² Source: http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/definitions-a/antigen.html
³ Source: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/sulfite-sensitivity
⁴ Source: http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/whats-in-wine/sulfites-in-wine

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Attaching to receptors is acting like estrogen. But it’s a moot point, not raised by me, I only furnished evidence of endocrine effects of soy. Some may be favorable, some may be damaging, some may be neither. The sloppiness of assertions has a lot to do with the chronic misapplication of epidemiology to clinical decision making, which should never happen.