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The topic of soy can create a big debate among healthy folks, and the viewpoints can be extreme. Who knew a humble green bean could be so controversial? Some tout soy products as a panacea for health and wellness, while others swear that soy is a sure ticket to infertility and "man boobs". What are the facts?
Asians don't actually eat as much soy as we think -- only about 10-36 grams per day. In contrast, a cup of tofu or soy milk contains over 200 grams of soy. Besides, the most common soy foods in Asia are fermented products such as tempeh, miso and shoyu (soy sauce), while most Westerners eat unfermented, highly processed versions of soy. Unfermented soy contains enzyme inhibitors that block protein digestion (among other things we'll get to below).
Most soy foods are highly processed and bear very little resemblance to the natural soybean (think soy hotdogs or TVP -- textured vegetable protein). Just because something is touted as a "health" food, doesn't really make it healthy. Whole foods are always the best way to get your food nutrition -- the more processed a food is, the less natural and ultimately less healthy it is.
Soy is more filler than food. For many years, the protein left over from the extraction of soy oil was sold to farms as animal feed. After some time, the food industry figured out how to make this highly processed soy protein palatable to the human tongue and began to aggressively market it in foods like soy dogs, soy meat substitutes and the like. Sure, there's protein, but it also takes quite a bit of sugar, salt or MSG to make soy protein actually taste good. The healthiest foods are whole foods, not processed ones.
Unfermented soy can inhibit protein absorption, cause flatulence and increase the chance of developing kidney stones. The processing of soy may remove some of these problems. Soy also inhibits growth. Even within the animal feed industry, the amount of soy protein that can be fed to animals has to be limited or the animals themselves will suffer problems with growth and fertility.
Most soy grown in the world is genetically modified (GM) -- with 87% of American soy being GM. And what's the big deal about that? Not a lot of research has been done on the effects of GM foods, but one particular study on rats showed that unborn babies and young infants were particularly harmed by the effects of genetically modified soy.