research on the health effects of
soy and soybean components seems to increase exponentially.
Furthermore, research is not just expanding in the primary areas
under investigation, such as cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis;
new findings suggest that soy has potential benefits that may be more
extensive than previously thought.
So writes Mark Messina, PhD, General Chairperson of the Third
International Soy Symposium, held in Washington, DC, in November
1999. For four days, well-funded scientists gathered in Washington
made presentations to an admiring press and to their sponsors -
United Soybean Board, American Soybean Association, Monsanto, Protein
Technologies International, Central Soya, Cargill Foods, Personal
Products Company, SoyLife, Whitehall-Robins Healthcare and the
soybean councils of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota,
Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.
The symposium marked the apogee of a decade-long marketing
campaign to gain consumer acceptance of tofu, soy milk, soy ice
cream, soy cheese, soy sausage and soy derivatives, particularly soy
isoflavones like genistein and diadzen, the oestrogen-like compounds
found in soybeans. It coincided with a US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) decision, announced on October 25, 1999, to
allow a health claim for products "low in saturated fat and
cholesterol" that contain 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving.
Breakfast cereals, baked goods, convenience food, smoothie mixes and
meat substitutes could now be sold with labels touting benefits to
cardiovascular health, as long as these products contained one
heaping teaspoon of soy protein per 100-gram serving.
MARKETING THE PERFECT FOOD
"Just imagine you could grow the perfect food. This food not only
would provide affordable nutrition, but also would be delicious and
easy to prepare in a variety of ways. It would be a healthful food,
with no saturated fat. In fact, you would be growing a virtual
fountain of youth on your back forty." The author is Dean Houghton,
writing for The Furrow, a magazine published in 12
languages by John Deere. "This ideal food would help prevent, and
perhaps reverse, some of the world's most dreaded diseases. You could
grow this miracle crop in a variety of soils and climates. Its
cultivation would build up, not deplete, the land...this miracle food
already exists... It's called soy."
Just imagine. Farmers have been imagining - and planting more soy.
What was once a minor crop, listed in the 1913 US Department of
Agriculture (USDA) handbook not as a food but as an industrial
product, now covers 72 million acres of American farmland. Much of
this harvest will be used to feed chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and
salmon. Another large fraction will be squeezed to produce oil for
margarine, shortenings and salad dressings.
Advances in technology make it possible to produce isolated soy
protein from what was once considered a waste product - the defatted,
high-protein soy chips - and then transform something that looks and
smells terrible into products that can be consumed by human beings.
Flavorings, preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers and synthetic
nutrients have turned soy protein isolate, the food processors' ugly
duckling, into a New Age Cinderella.
The new fairy-tale food has been marketed not so much for her
beauty but for her virtues. Early on, products based on soy protein
isolate were sold as extenders and meat substitutes - a strategy that
failed to produce the requisite consumer demand. The industry changed
its approach. "The quickest way to gain product acceptability in the
less affluent society," said an industry spokesman, "is to have the
product consumed on its own merit in a more affluent society." So
soy is now sold to the upscale consumer, not as a cheap, poverty food
but as a miracle substance that will prevent heart disease and
cancer, whisk away hot flushes, build strong bones and keep us
forever young. The competition - meat, milk, cheese, butter and eggs
- has been duly demonized by the appropriate government bodies. Soy
serves as meat and milk for a new generation of virtuous vegetarians.
Marketing costs money, especially when it needs to be bolstered
with "research", but there's plenty of funds available. All soybean
producers pay a mandatory assessment of one-half to one per cent of
the net market price of soybeans. The total - something like US$80
million annually4 - supports United Soybean's program to "strengthen
the position of soybeans in the marketplace and maintain and expand
domestic and foreign markets for uses for soybeans and soybean
products". State soybean councils from Maryland, Nebraska, Delaware,
Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan provide another $2.5
million for "research". Private companies like Archer Daniels
Midland also contribute their share. ADM spent $4.7 million for
advertising on Meet the Press and $4.3 million on Face the
Nation during the course of a year. Public relations firms help
convert research projects into newspaper articles and advertising
copy, and law firms lobby for favorable government regulations. IMF
money funds soy processing plants in foreign countries, and free
trade policies keep soybean abundance flowing to overseas
The push for more soy has been relentless and global in its reach.
Soy protein is now found in most supermarket breads. It is being used
to transform "the humble tortilla, Mexico's corn-based staple food,
into a protein-fortified 'super-tortilla' that would give a
nutritional boost to the nearly 20 million Mexicans who live in
extreme poverty". Advertising for a new soy-enriched loaf from
Allied Bakeries in Britain targets menopausal women seeking relief
from hot flushes. Sales are running at a quarter of a million loaves
The soy industry hired Norman Robert Associates, a public
relations firm, to "get more soy products onto school menus". The
USDA responded with a proposal to scrap the 30 per cent limit for soy
in school lunches. The NuMenu program would allow unlimited use of
soy in student meals. With soy added to hamburgers, tacos and
lasagna, dieticians can get the total fat content below 30 per cent
of calories, thereby conforming to government dictates. "With the
soy-enhanced food items, students are receiving better servings of
nutrients and less cholesterol and fat."
Soy milk has posted the biggest gains, soaring from $2 million in
1980 to $300 million in the US last year. Recent advances in
processing have transformed the grey, thin, bitter, beany-tasting
Asian beverage into a product that Western consumers will accept -
one that tastes like a milkshake, but without the guilt.
Processing miracles, good packaging, massive advertising and a
marketing strategy that stresses the products' possible health
benefits account for increasing sales to all age groups. For example,
reports that soy helps prevent prostate cancer have made soy milk
acceptable to middle-aged men. "You don't have to twist the arm of a
55- to 60-year-old guy to get him to try soy milk," says Mark
Messina. Michael Milken, former junk bond financier, has helped the
industry shed its hippie image with well-publicized efforts to
consume 40 grams of soy protein daily.
America today, tomorrow the world. Soy milk sales are rising in
Canada, even though soy milk there costs twice as much as cow's milk.
Soybean milk processing plants are sprouting up in places like
Kenya. Even China, where soy really is a poverty food and whose
people want more meat, not tofu, has opted to build Western-style soy
factories rather than develop western grasslands for grazing
CINDERELLA'S DARK SIDE
The propaganda that has created the soy sales miracle is all the
more remarkable because, only a few decades ago, the soybean was
considered unfit to eat - even in Asia. During the Chou Dynasty
(1134 - 246 BC) the soybean was designated one of the five
sacred grains, along with barley, wheat, millet and rice. However,
the pictograph for the soybean, which dates from earlier times,
indicates that it was not first used as a food; for whereas the
pictographs for the other four grains show the seed and stem
structure of the plant, the pictograph for the soybean emphasizes the
root structure. Agricultural literature of the period speaks
frequently of the soybean and its use in crop rotation. Apparently
the soy plant was initially used as a method of fixing nitrogen.
The soybean did not serve as a food until the discovery of
fermentation techniques, some time during the Chou Dynasty. The first
soy foods were fermented products like tempeh, natto, miso and soy
sauce. At a later date, possibly in the 2nd century BC, Chinese
scientists discovered that a purée of cooked soybeans could be
precipitated with calcium sulphate or magnesium sulphate (plaster of
Paris or Epsom salts) to make a smooth, pale curd - tofu or bean
curd. The use of fermented and precipitated soy products soon spread
to other parts of the Orient, notably Japan and Indonesia.
The Chinese did not eat unfermented soybeans as they did other
legumes such as lentils because the soybean contains large quantities
of natural toxins or "antinutrients". First among them are potent
enzyme inhibitors that block the action of trypsin and other enzymes
needed for protein digestion. These inhibitors are large, tightly
folded proteins that are not completely deactivated during ordinary
cooking. They can produce serious gastric distress, reduced protein
digestion and chronic deficiencies in amino acid uptake. In test
animals, diets high in trypsin inhibitors cause enlargement and
pathological conditions of the pancreas, including cancer.
Soybeans also contain haemagglutinin, a clot-promoting substance
that causes red blood cells to clump together.
Trypsin inhibitors and haemagglutinin are growth inhibitors.
Weanling rats fed soy containing these antinutrients fail to grow
normally. Growth-depressant compounds are deactivated during the
process of fermentation, so once the Chinese discovered how to
ferment the soybean, they began to incorporate soy foods into their
diets. In precipitated products, enzyme inhibitors concentrate in the
soaking liquid rather than in the curd. Thus, in tofu and bean curd,
growth depressants are reduced in quantity but not completely
Soy also contains goitrogens - substances that depress thyroid
Soybeans are high in phytic acid, present in the bran or hulls of
all seeds. It's a substance that can block the uptake of essential
minerals - calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc - in
the intestinal tract. Although not a household word, phytic acid has
been extensively studied; there are literally hundreds of articles on
the effects of phytic acid in the current scientific literature.
Scientists are in general agreement that grain- and legume-based
diets high in phytates contribute to widespread mineral deficiencies
in third world countries. Analysis shows that calcium, magnesium,
iron and zinc are present in the plant foods eaten in these areas,
but the high phytate content of soy- and grain-based diets prevents
The soybean has one of the highest phytate levels of any grain or
legume that has been studied, and the phytates in soy are highly
resistant to normal phytate-reducing techniques such as long, slow
cooking. Only a long period of fermentation will significantly
reduce the phytate content of soybeans. When precipitated soy
products like tofu are consumed with meat, the mineral-blocking
effects of the phytates are reduced. The Japanese traditionally eat
a small amount of tofu or miso as part of a mineral-rich fish broth,
followed by a serving of meat or fish.
Vegetarians who consume tofu and bean curd as a substitute for
meat and dairy products risk severe mineral deficiencies. The results
of calcium, magnesium and iron deficiency are well known; those of
zinc are less so.
Zinc is called the intelligence mineral because it is needed for
optimal development and functioning of the brain and nervous system.
It plays a role in protein synthesis and collagen formation; it is
involved in the blood-sugar control mechanism and thus protects
against diabetes; it is needed for a healthy reproductive system.
Zinc is a key component in numerous vital enzymes and plays a role in
the immune system. Phytates found in soy products interfere with zinc
absorption more completely than with other minerals. Zinc
deficiency can cause a "spacey" feeling that some vegetarians may
mistake for the "high" of spiritual enlightenment.
Milk drinking is given as the reason why second-generation
Japanese in America grow taller than their native ancestors. Some
investigators postulate that the reduced phytate content of the
American diet - whatever may be its other deficiencies - is the true
explanation, pointing out that both Asian and Western children who do
not get enough meat and fish products to counteract the effects of a
high phytate diet, frequently suffer rickets, stunting and other
SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE: NOT SO FRIENDLY
Soy processors have worked hard to get these antinutrients out of
the finished product, particularly soy protein isolate (SPI) which is
the key ingredient in most soy foods that imitate meat and dairy
products, including baby formulas and some brands of soy milk.
SPI is not something you can make in your own kitchen. Production
takes place in industrial factories where a slurry of soy beans is
first mixed with an alkaline solution to remove fiber, then
precipitated and separated using an acid wash and, finally,
neutralised in an alkaline solution. Acid washing in aluminum tanks
leaches high levels of aluminum into the final product. The
resultant curds are spray- dried at high temperatures to produce a
high-protein powder. A final indignity to the original soybean is
high-temperature, high-pressure extrusion processing of soy protein
isolate to produce textured vegetable protein (TVP).
Much of the trypsin inhibitor content can be removed through
high-temperature processing, but not all. Trypsin inhibitor content
of soy protein isolate can vary as much as fivefold. (In rats, even
low-level trypsin inhibitor SPI feeding results in reduced weight
gain compared to controls.) But high-temperature processing has the
unfortunate side-effect of so denaturing the other proteins in soy
that they are rendered largely ineffective. That's why animals on
soy feed need lysine supplements for normal growth.
Nitrites, which are potent carcinogens, are formed during
spray-drying, and a toxin called lysinoalanine is formed during
alkaline processing. Numerous artificial flavourings, particularly
MSG, are added to soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein
products to mask their strong "beany" taste and to impart the flavour
In feeding experiments, the use of SPI increased requirements for
vitamins E, K, D and B12 and created deficiency symptoms of calcium,
magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, copper, iron and zinc. Phytic
acid remaining in these soy products greatly inhibits zinc and iron
absorption; test animals fed SPI develop enlarged organs,
particularly the pancreas and thyroid gland, and increased deposition
of fatty acids in the liver.
Yet soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein are used
extensively in school lunch programs, commercial baked goods, diet
beverages and fast food products. They are heavily promoted in third
world countries and form the basis of many food giveaway programs.
In spite of poor results in animal feeding trials, the soy
industry has sponsored a number of studies designed to show that soy
protein products can be used in human diets as a replacement for
traditional foods. An example is "Nutritional Quality of Soy Bean
Protein Isolates: Studies in Children of Preschool Age", sponsored by
the Ralston Purina Company. A group of Central American children
suffering from malnutrition was first stabilized and brought into
better health by feeding them native foods, including meat and dairy
products. Then, for a two-week period, these traditional foods were
replaced by a drink made of soy protein isolate and sugar. All
nitrogen taken in and all nitrogen excreted was measured in truly
Orwellian fashion: the children were weighed naked every morning, and
all excrement and vomit gathered up for analysis. The researchers
found that the children retained nitrogen and that their growth was
"adequate", so the experiment was declared a success.
Whether the children were actually healthy on such a diet, or
could remain so over a long period, is another matter. The
researchers noted that the children vomited "occasionally", usually
after finishing a meal; that over half suffered from periods of
moderate diarrhea; that some had upper respiratory infections; and
that others suffered from rash and fever.
It should be noted that the researchers did not dare to use soy
products to help the children recover from malnutrition, and were
obliged to supplement the soy-sugar mixture with nutrients largely
absent in soy products - notably, vitamins A, D and B12, iron, iodine
FDA HEALTH CLAIM CHALLENGED
The best marketing strategy for a product that is inherently
unhealthy is, of course, a health claim.
"The road to FDA approval," writes a soy apologist, "was long and
demanding, consisting of a detailed review of human clinical data
collected from more than 40 scientific studies conducted over the
last 20 years. Soy protein was found to be one of the rare foods that
had sufficient scientific evidence not only to qualify for an FDA
health claim proposal but to ultimately pass the rigorous approval
The "long and demanding" road to FDA approval actually took a few
unexpected turns. The original petition, submitted by Protein
Technology International, requested a health claim for isoflavones,
the oestrogen-like compounds found plentifully in soybeans, based on
assertions that "only soy protein that has been processed in a manner
in which isoflavones are retained will result in cholesterol
lowering". In 1998, the FDA made the unprecedented move of rewriting
PTI's petition, removing any reference to the phyto-oestrogens and
substituting a claim for soy protein - a move that was in direct
contradiction to the agency's regulations. The FDA is authorised to
make rulings only on substances presented by petition.
The abrupt change in direction was no doubt due to the fact that a
number of researchers, including scientists employed by the US
Government, submitted documents indicating that isoflavones are
The FDA had also received, early in 1998, the final British
Government report on phytoestrogens, which failed to find much
evidence of benefit and warned against potential adverse effects.
Even with the change to soy protein isolate, FDA bureaucrats
engaged in the "rigorous approval process" were forced to deal nimbly
with concerns about mineral blocking effects, enzyme inhibitors,
goitrogenicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive problems and
increased allergic reactions from consumption of soy products.
One of the strongest letters of protest came from Dr Dan Sheehan
and Dr Daniel Doerge, government researchers at the National Center
for Toxicological Research. Their pleas for warning labels were
dismissed as unwarranted.
"Sufficient scientific evidence" of soy's cholesterol-lowering
properties is drawn largely from a 1995 meta-analysis by Dr James
Anderson, sponsored by Protein Technologies International and
published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A meta-analysis is a review and summary of the results of many
clinical studies on the same subject. Use of meta-analyses to draw
general conclusions has come under sharp criticism by members of the
scientific community. "Researchers substituting meta-analysis for
more rigorous trials risk making faulty assumptions and indulging in
creative accounting," says Sir John Scott, President of the Royal
Society of New Zealand. "Like is not being lumped with like. Little
lumps and big lumps of data are being gathered together by various
There is the added temptation for researchers, particularly
researchers funded by a company like Protein Technologies
International, to leave out studies that would prevent the desired
conclusions. Dr Anderson discarded eight studies for various reasons,
leaving a remainder of twenty-nine. The published report suggested
that individuals with cholesterol levels over 250 mg/dl would
experience a "significant" reduction of 7 to 20 per cent in levels of
serum cholesterol if they substituted soy protein for animal protein.
Cholesterol reduction was insignificant for individuals whose
cholesterol was lower than 250 mg/dl.
In other words, for most of us, giving up steak and eating
vegieburgers instead will not bring down blood cholesterol levels.
The health claim that the FDA approved "after detailed review of
human clinical data" fails to inform the consumer about these
Research that ties soy to positive effects on cholesterol levels
is "incredibly immature", said Ronald M. Krauss, MD, head of the
Molecular Medical Research Program and Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory. He might have added that studies in which cholesterol
levels were lowered through either diet or drugs have consistently
resulted in a greater number of deaths in the treatment groups than
in controls - deaths from stroke, cancer, intestinal disorders,
accident and suicide. Cholesterol-lowering measures in the US have
fuelled a $60 billion per year cholesterol-lowering industry, but
have not saved us from the ravages of heart disease.
SOY AND CANCER
The new FDA ruling does not allow any claims about cancer
prevention on food packages, but that has not restrained the industry
and its marketers from making them in their promotional literature.
"In addition to protecting the heart," says a vitamin company
brochure, "soy has demonstrated powerful anticancer benefits...the
Japanese, who eat 30 times as much soy as North Americans, have a
lower incidence of cancers of the breast, uterus and prostate."
Indeed they do. But the Japanese, and Asians in general, have much
higher rates of other types of cancer, particularly cancer of the
oesophagus, stomach, pancreas and liver. Asians throughout the
world also have high rates of thyroid cancer. The logic that links
low rates of reproductive cancers to soy consumption requires
attribution of high rates of thyroid and digestive cancers to the
same foods, particularly as soy causes these types of cancers in
Just how much soy do Asians eat? A 1998 survey found that the
average daily amount of soy protein consumed in Japan was about eight
grams for men and seven for women - less than two teaspoons. The
famous Cornell China Study, conducted by Colin T. Campbell, found
that legume consumption in China varied from 0 to 58 grams per day,
with a mean of about twelve. Assuming that two-thirds of legume
consumption is soy, then the maximum consumption is about 40 grams,
or less than three tablespoons per day, with an average consumption
of about nine grams, or less than two teaspoons. A survey conducted
in the 1930s found that soy foods accounted for only 1.5 per cent of
calories in the Chinese diet, compared with 65 per cent of calories
from pork. (Asians traditionally cooked with lard, not vegetable
Traditionally fermented soy products make a delicious, natural
seasoning that may supply important nutritional factors in the Asian
diet. But except in times of famine, Asians consume soy products only
in small amounts, as condiments, and not as a replacement for animal
foods - with one exception. Celibate monks living in monasteries and
leading a vegetarian lifestyle find soy foods quite helpful because
they dampen libido.
It was a 1994 meta-analysis by Mark Messina, published in
Nutrition and Cancer, that fuelled speculation on soy's
anticarcinogenic properties. Messina noted that in 26 animal
studies, 65 per cent reported protective effects from soy. He
conveniently neglected to include at least one study in which soy
feeding caused pancreatic cancer - the 1985 study by Rackis. In the
human studies he listed, the results were mixed. A few showed some
protective effect, but most showed no correlation at all between soy
consumption and cancer rates. He concluded that "the data in this
review cannot be used as a basis for claiming that soy intake
decreases cancer risk". Yet in his subsequent book, The Simple
Soybean and Your Health, Messina makes just such a claim,
recommending one cup or 230 grams of soy products per day in his
"optimal" diet as a way to prevent cancer.
Thousands of women are now consuming soy in the belief that it
protects them against breast cancer. Yet, in 1996, researchers found
that women consuming soy protein isolate had an increased incidence
of epithelial hyperplasia, a condition that presages malignancies.
A year later, dietary genistein was found to stimulate breast cells
to enter the cell cycle - a discovery that led the study authors to
conclude that women should not consume soy products to prevent breast
PHYTOESTROGENS: PANACEA OR POISON?
The male species of tropical birds carries the drab plumage of the
female at birth and 'colours up' at maturity, somewhere between nine
and 24 months.
In 1991, Richard and Valerie James, bird breeders in Whangerai,
New Zealand, purchased a new kind of feed for their birds - one based
largely on soy protein. When soy-based feed was used, their birds
'coloured up' after just a few months. In fact, one bird-food
manufacturer claimed that this early development was an advantage
imparted by the feed. A 1992 ad for Roudybush feed formula showed a
picture of the male crimson rosella, an Australian parrot that
acquires beautiful red plumage at 18 to 24 months, already brightly
coloured at 11 weeks old.
Unfortunately, in the ensuing years, there was decreased fertility
in the birds, with precocious maturation, deformed, stunted and
stillborn babies, and premature deaths, especially among females,
with the result that the total population in the aviaries went into
steady decline. The birds suffered beak and bone deformities, goitre,
immune system disorders and pathological, aggressive behavior.
Autopsy revealed digestive organs in a state of disintegration. The
list of problems corresponded with many of the problems the Jameses
had encountered in their two children, who had been fed soy-based
Startled, aghast, angry, the Jameses hired toxicologist Mike
Fitzpatrick. PhD, to investigate further. Dr Fitzpatrick's literature
review uncovered evidence that soy consumption has been linked to
numerous disorders, including infertility, increased cancer and
infantile leukaemia; and, in studies dating back to the 1950s, that
genistein in soy causes endocrine disruption in animals. Dr
Fitzpatrick also analysed the bird feed and found that it contained
high levels of phytoestrogens, especially genistein. When the Jameses
discontinued using soy-based feed, the flock gradually returned to
normal breeding habits and behaviour.
The Jameses embarked on a private crusade to warn the public and
government officials about toxins in soy foods, particularly the
endocrine-disrupting isoflavones, genistein and diadzen. Protein
Technology International received their material in 1994.
In 1991, Japanese researchers reported that consumption of as
little as 30 grams or two tablespoons of soybeans per day for only
one month resulted in a significant increase in thyroid-stimulating
hormone. Diffuse goitre and hypothyroidism appeared in some of the
subjects and many complained of constipation, fatigue and lethargy,
even though their intake of iodine was adequate. In 1997, researchers
from the FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research made the
embarrassing discovery that the goitrogenic components of soy were
the very same isoflavones.
Twenty-five grams of soy protein isolate, the minimum amount PTI
claimed to have cholesterol-lowering effects, contains from 50 to 70
mg of isoflavones. It took only 45 mg of isoflavones in premenopausal
women to exert significant biological effects, including a reduction
in hormones needed for adequate thyroid function. These effects
lingered for three months after soy consumption was discontinued.
One hundred grams of soy protein - the maximum suggested
cholesterol-lowering dose, and the amount recommended by Protein
Technologies International - can contain almost 600 mg of
isoflavones,52 an amount that is undeniably toxic. In 1992, the Swiss
health service estimated that 100 grams of soy protein provided the
oestrogenic equivalent of the Pill.
In vitro studies suggest that isoflavones inhibit synthesis of
oestradiol and other steroid hormones. Reproductive problems,
infertility, thyroid disease and liver disease due to dietary intake
of isoflavones have been observed for several species of animals
including mice, cheetah, quail, pigs, rats, sturgeon and sheep.
It is the isoflavones in soy that are said to have a favourable
effect on postmenopausal symptoms, including hot flushes, and
protection from osteoporosis. Quantification of discomfort from hot
flushes is extremely subjective, and most studies show that control
subjects report reduction in discomfort in amounts equal to subjects
given soy. The claim that soy prevents osteoporosis is
extraordinary, given that soy foods block calcium and cause vitamin D
deficiencies. If Asians indeed have lower rates of osteoporosis than
Westerners, it is because their diet provides plenty of vitamin D
from shrimp, lard and seafood, and plenty of calcium from bone
broths. The reason that Westerners have such high rates of
osteoporosis is because they have substituted soy oil for butter,
which is a traditional source of vitamin D and other fat-soluble
activators needed for calcium absorption.
BIRTH CONTROL PILLS FOR BABIES
But it was the isoflavones in infant formula that gave the Jameses
the most cause for concern. In 1998, investigators reported that the
daily exposure of infants to isoflavones in soy infant formula is 6
to11 times higher on a body-weight basis than the dose that has
hormonal effects in adults consuming soy foods. Circulating
concentrations of isoflavones in infants fed soy-based formula were
13,000 to 22,000 times higher than plasma oestradiol concentrations
in infants on cow's milk formula.
Approximately 25 per cent of bottle-fed children in the US receive
soy-based formula - a much higher percentage than in other parts of
the Western world. Fitzpatrick estimated that an infant exclusively
fed soy formula receives the oestrogenic equivalent (based on body
weight) of at least five birth control pills per day. By contrast,
almost no phytoestrogens have been detected in dairy-based infant
formula or in human milk, even when the mother consumes soy products.
Scientists have known for years that soy-based formula can cause
thyroid problems in babies. But what are the effects of soy products
on the hormonal development of the infant, both male and female?
Male infants undergo a "testosterone surge" during the first few
months of life, when testosterone levels may be as high as those of
an adult male. During this period, the infant is programmed to
express male characteristics after puberty, not only in the
development of his sexual organs and other masculine physical traits,
but also in setting patterns in the brain characteristic of male
behaviour. In monkeys, deficiency of male hormones impairs the
development of spatial perception (which, in humans, is normally more
acute in men than in women), of learning ability and of visual
discrimination tasks (such as would be required for reading). It
goes without saying that future patterns of sexual orientation may
also be influenced by the early hormonal environment. Male children
exposed during gestation to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic
oestrogen that has effects on animals similar to those of
phytoestrogens from soy, had testes smaller than normal on
Learning disabilities, especially in male children, have reached
epidemic proportions. Soy infant feeding - which began in earnest in
the early 1970s - cannot be ignored as a probable cause for these
As for girls, an alarming number are entering puberty much earlier
than normal, according to a recent study reported in the journal
Pediatrics. Investigators found that one per cent of all
girls now show signs of puberty, such as breast development or pubic
hair, before the age of three; by age eight, 14.7 per cent of white
girls and almost 50 per cent of African-American girls have one or
both of these characteristics.
New data indicate that environmental oestrogens such as PCBs and
DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) may cause early sexual development
in girls. In the 1986 Puerto Rico Premature Thelarche study, the
most significant dietary association with premature sexual
development was not chicken - as reported in the press - but soy
The consequences of this truncated childhood are tragic. Young
girls with mature bodies must cope with feelings and urges that most
children are not well-equipped to handle. And early maturation in
girls is frequently a harbinger for problems with the reproductive
system later in life, including failure to menstruate, infertility
and breast cancer.
Parents who have contacted the Jameses recount other problems
associated with children of both sexes who were fed soy-based
formula, including extreme emotional behaviour, asthma, immune system
problems, pituitary insufficiency, thyroid disorders and irritable
bowel syndrome - the same endocrine and digestive havoc that
afflicted the Jameses' parrots.
DISSENSION IN THE RANKS
Organisers of the Third International Soy Symposium would be
hard-pressed to call the conference an unqualified success. On the
second day of the symposium, the London-based Food Commission and the
Weston A. Price Foundation of Washington, DC, held a joint press
conference, in the same hotel as the symposium, to present concerns
about soy infant formula. Industry representatives sat stony-faced
through the recitation of potential dangers and a plea from concerned
scientists and parents to pull soy-based infant formula from the
market. Under pressure from the Jameses, the New Zealand Government
had issued a health warning about soy infant formula in 1998; it was
time for the American government to do the same.
On the last day of the symposium, presentations on new findings
related to toxicity sent a well-oxygenated chill through the giddy
helium hype. Dr Lon White reported on a study of Japanese Americans
living in Hawaii, that showed a significant statistical relationship
between two or more servings of tofu a week and "accelerated brain
aging". Those participants who consumed tofu in mid-life had lower
cognitive function in late life and a greater incidence of
Alzheimer's disease and dementia. "What's more," said Dr White,
"those who ate a lot of tofu, by the time they were 75 or 80 looked
five years older". White and his colleagues blamed the negative
effects on isoflavones - a finding that supports an earlier study in
which postmenopausal women with higher levels of circulating
oestrogen experienced greater cognitive decline.
Scientists Daniel Sheehan and Daniel Doerge, from the National
Center for Toxicological Research, ruined PTI's day by presenting
findings from rat feeding studies, indicating that genistein in soy
foods causes irreversible damage to enzymes that synthesise thyroid
hormones. "The association between soybean consumption and goiter
in animals and humans has a long history," wrote Dr Doerge. "Current
evidence for the beneficial effects of soy requires a full
understanding of potential adverse effects as well."
Dr Claude Hughes reported that rats born to mothers that were fed
genistein had decreased birth weights compared to controls, and onset
of puberty occurred earlier in male offspring. His research
suggested that the effects observed in rats "...will be at least
somewhat predictive of what occurs in humans. There is no reason to
assume that there will be gross malformations of fetuses but there
may be subtle changes, such as neurobehavioral attributes, immune
function and sex hormone levels." The results, he said, "could be
nothing or could be something of great concern...if mom is eating
something that can act like sex hormones, it is logical to wonder if
that could change the baby's development".
A study of babies born to vegetarian mothers, published in January
2000, indicated just what those changes in baby's development might
be. Mothers who ate a vegetarian diet during pregnancy had a fivefold
greater risk of delivering a boy with hypospadias, a birth defect of
the penis. The authors of the study suggested that the cause was
greater exposure to phytoestrogens in soy foods popular with
vegetarians. Problems with female offspring of vegetarian mothers are
more likely to show up later in life. While soy's oestrogenic effect
is less than that of diethylstilbestrol (DES), the dose is likely to
be higher because it's consumed as a food, not taken as a drug.
Daughters of women who took DES during pregnancy suffered from
infertility and cancer when they reached their twenties.
QUESTION MARKS OVER GRAS STATUS
Lurking in the background of industry hype for soy is the nagging
question of whether it's even legal to add soy protein isolate to
food. All food additives not in common use prior to 1958, including
casein protein from milk, must have GRAS (Generally Recognized As
Safe) status. In 1972, the Nixon administration directed a
re-examination of substances believed to be GRAS, in the light of any
scientific information then available. This re-examination included
casein protein which became codified as GRAS in 1978. In 1974, the
FDA obtained a literature review of soy protein because, as soy
protein had not been used in food until 1959 and was not even in
common use in the early 1970s, it was not eligible to have its GRAS
status grandfathered under the provisions of the Food, Drug and
The scientific literature up to 1974 recognised many antinutrients
in factory-made soy protein, including trypsin inhibitors, phytic
acid and genistein. But the FDA literature review dismissed
discussion of adverse impacts, with the statement that it was
important for "adequate processing" to remove them. Genistein could
be removed with an alcohol wash, but it was an expensive procedure
that processors avoided. Later studies determined that trypsin
inhibitor content could be removed only with long periods of heat and
pressure, but the FDA has imposed no requirements for manufacturers
to do so.
The FDA was more concerned with toxins formed during processing,
specifically nitrites and lysinoalanine.72 Even at low levels of
consumption - averaging one-third of a gram per day at the time - the
presence of these carcinogens was considered too great a threat to
public health to allow GRAS status.
Soy protein did have approval for use as a binder in cardboard
boxes, and this approval was allowed to continue, as researchers
considered that migration of nitrites from the box into the food
contents would be too small to constitute a cancer risk. FDA
officials called for safety specifications and monitoring procedures
before granting of GRAS status for food. These were never performed.
To this day, use of soy protein is codified as GRAS only for this
limited industrial use as a cardboard binder. This means that soy
protein must be subject to premarket approval procedures each time
manufacturers intend to use it as a food or add it to a food.
Soy protein was introduced into infant formula in the early 1960s.
It was a new product with no history of any use at all. As soy
protein did not have GRAS status, premarket approval was required.
This was not and still has not been granted. The key ingredient of
soy infant formula is not recognised as safe.
THE NEXT ASBESTOS?
"Against the backdrop of widespread praise...there is growing
suspicion that soy - despite its undisputed benefits - may pose some
health hazards," writes Marian Burros, a leading food writer for the
New York Times. More than any other writer, Ms Burros's
endorsement of a low-fat, largely vegetarian diet has herded
Americans into supermarket aisles featuring soy foods. Yet her
January 26, 2000 article, "Doubts Cloud Rosy News on Soy", contains
the following alarming statement: "Not one of the 18 scientists
interviewed for this column was willing to say that taking
isoflavones was risk free." Ms Burros did not enumerate the risks,
nor did she mention that the recommended 25 daily grams of soy
protein contain enough isoflavones to cause problems in sensitive
individuals, but it was evident that the industry had recognised the
need to cover itself.
Because the industry is extremely exposed...contingency lawyers
will soon discover that the number of potential plaintiffs can be
counted in the millions and the pockets are very, very deep. Juries
will hear something like the following: "The industry has known for
years that soy contains many toxins. At first they told the public
that the toxins were removed by processing. When it became apparent
that processing could not get rid of them, they claimed that these
substances were beneficial. Your government granted a health claim to
a substance that is poisonous, and the industry lied to the public to
sell more soy."
The "industry" includes merchants, manufacturers, scientists,
publicists, bureaucrats, former bond financiers, food writers,
vitamin companies and retail stores. Farmers will probably escape
because they were duped like the rest of us. But they need to find
something else to grow before the soy bubble bursts and the market
collapses: grass-fed livestock, designer vegetables...or hemp to make
paper for thousands and thousands of legal briefs.
The authors wish to thank Mike Fitzpatrick, PhD, and Valerie and
Richard James for their help in preparing this article.