The Skinny on Soy
By Marie Oser
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“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

—Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965)

Soy has become a superstar among healthy alternatives. As is often the case in the media, a person or product will enjoy great coverage, achieving celebrity status only to be knocked down when the press pendulum swings the other way.

Perhaps, after so much good news about the numerous health benefits associated with a diet rich in soy, from menopause relief to cancer prevention, a backlash was almost to be expected. In recent years, a virtual avalanche of sensationalistic rumors and accusations has stalked soyfoods.

Soy has become the target of some rather serious allegations purportedly refuting decades of research regarding the health benefits associated with consuming soy. Rumors have been circulating about substances in soy that may be harmful, causing everything from infertility and cancer to homosexuality. I am a health writer and soyfoods expert and have often been asked to respond to questions from concerned consumers distressed by these frightful claims.

The Internet can be an amazing resource for the exchange of ideas and information. For students, writers, and authors doing research or consumers searching for food and health information, the Internet delivers a world of data to the desktop. However, this amazing technological behemoth can easily become an instrument of misinformation and controversy.

This egalitarian resource can often generate a great deal of inaccurate information and has become the home base for a campaign to cast serious doubt on the wisdom of consuming soy. It is on the Internet that you will find sensationalistic claims based on half-truths and junk science on a variety of topics, with soy at the top of the list.

When these allegations are scrutinized, what is most surprising is that they have originated with a small contingent of very vocal activists. The first wave of queries came to me following a fervently anti-soy article, “Tragedy and Hype,” by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig. The authors portray soybeans and the myriad of soyfoods made from them as poisonous and unfit for human consumption.

According to Fallon and Enig, soybeans contain substances that cause hypothyroidism, cancer, and sex organ abnormalities— from young boys growing breasts to stunted growth.

“Tragedy and Hype” makes a number of rather grave charges that indict the entire soyfoods industry, alleging a concerted conspiracy to conceal damaging information.

Fallon and Enig declare that those who will be held legally responsible for deliberately manipulating the public for financial gain “include merchants, manufacturers, scientists, publicists, bureaucrats, former bond financiers, food writers, vitamin companies and retail stores.”

Food writers? Vitamin companies and retail stores? Bond financiers? The litany of dangerous health hazards these authors attribute to consuming soyfoods would put just about every area of the body at risk of dire consequences.

The Internet is an echo chamber and allegations, recycled and rebroadcast over the years, leading to a number of articles, posts, books, and websites with similar commentary referencing the authors. As a result, many people now have serious reservations about the safety of consuming soy. Note the many disclaimers on product labels prominently declaring “soy-free,” even though manufacturers may know soy to be a nutritious and beneficial ingredient; they are forced to acquiesce to the fears of consumers.

When evaluating information, it is important to consider the source. The most strident anti-soy naysayers are those associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). The WAPF was established decades after Dr. Price’s death in 1948 and represents meat and dairy farm community chapters around the country. Their financial and philosophical interests are in promoting the consumption of meat and dairy products, particularly raw milk and in villainizing soy and vegetarianism.

The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation of La Mesa, California, was founded in 1952 as the Santa Barbara Medical Research Foundation, became the Weston Price Memorial Foundation in 1965, and adopted its current name in 1969.

The Weston A. Price Foundation was named in honor of an early twentieth-century dentist and author of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration who traveled to remote regions of the world in the 1930s.

Dr. Price was a dentist who studied the diets of indigenous tribes to determine the link between diet and dental health. The WAPF advocates a diet high in beef, pork, and other flesh foods with generous amounts of butter and raw milk, none of which have even a passing relationship with Dr. Price’s work.

In 1934, Price wrote to his nieces and nephews, recommending a diet based on whole foods: “The basic foods should be the entire grains such as whole wheat, rye or oats, whole wheat and rye breads, wheat and oat cereals, oat-cake, dairy products, including milk and cheese, which should be used liberally and marine foods.”

It is interesting to note that the Weston A. Price Foundation promotes the consumption of beef, pork, and other meat products high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol with fervor and disparage anyone who consumes a diet rich in whole grains.

Dr. Price observed that many native cultures were very healthy while eating lacto-vegetarian or basically vegan diets with a small amount of fish. Sally Fallon, the foundation’s president never misses an opportunity to denounce vegetarianism, with article headings such as “Twenty-Two Reasons Not to Go Vegetarian,” “Myths & Truths About Vegetarianism,” and “Nutrient Deficiencies on a Vegetarian Diet,” which try to contradict peer reviewed evidence suggesting the reduced risk of many diseases and increased health, quality of life, and longevity associated with the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle.

Sally Fallon’s book, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats offers advice that is essentially counter-intuitive and employs mocking and manipulative language toward anyone who would disagree.

Written with Mary Enig, this book lists more than two hundred references; however, many are obsolete and the authors almost exclusively reference their own writings or those of other WAPF authors. Very few of these references were published in peer-reviewed journals and they were generally misrepresented.

The regimen recommended by the WAPF contains unhealthy levels of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) occurs when arteries become clogged with plaque, a condition called atherosclerosis.

These plaques, which consist of fat and cholesterol build up on the interior of the arteries reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. A diet high in animal products introduces unhealthy levels of fat and cholesterol and increases the risk of CHD.

Public health officials and the state departments of agriculture strongly discourage the drinking of raw milk on the grounds that it can be a dangerous, germ-ridden beverage that is especially hazardous to children because of their immature immune systems.

The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body. It is the body’s defense against infectious organisms and other substances that invade the body and can cause disease.

Raw cow milk has been a source of bovine tuberculosis and drinking milk that has not been pasteurized increases the risk of illness that may require hospitalization, as well as the risk of transferring other maladies such as mad cow disease.

Since 1987, the FDA has required pasteurization of almost all packaged milk products with the exception of some kinds of aged cheese; however, dairy-borne disease is still very much a threat.

The agency noted that unpasteurized milk products may contain a variety of infectious bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which can be the cause illness or even death.

Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal symptoms that include diarrhea that may be bloody, accompanied by nausea, vomiting, cramping, and fever, which develops within two to five days of exposure. These symptoms typically last about a week; however, it is possible for an individual to be infected with campylobacter and not exhibit symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in individuals with compromised immune systems, Campylobacter can spread to the bloodstream and cause a serious life-threatening infection.

The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (Food-Net) indicates that there are about fourteen cases of campylobacteriosis diagnosed per one hundred thousand persons annually. Many more cases go undiagnosed or unreported and campylobacteriosis is estimated to affect over 1.3 million people every year.

Although campylobacter infection does not commonly cause death, it has been estimated that approximately seventy-six people with campylobacter infections die each year.

In March of 2010, an outbreak of campylobacteriosis prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and several mid-western state health agencies to warn consumers against drinking raw milk.

There were recurrent outbreaks of campylobacter infections associated with raw milk in Pennsylvania that came from a dairy that was certified by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk. During January and February of 2012, the dairy was identified as the source of a multi-state outbreak of campylobacteriosis and then again in April and May of 2013.

In September of 2014, officials with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that unpasteurized (raw) milk served at a potluck team meal is the likely cause of a campylobacter outbreak that sickened at least twenty-two members of the Durand High School football team.

In March 2015, California public health investigators learned of six northern California residents who were diagnosed with campylobacter as a result of consuming raw milk produced by a local farm. The state investigators isolated campylobacter in multiple bottles of the raw milk from that farm.

Some point out that the WAPF does help to raise awareness about the dangers of processed food. However, much of what they espouse is completely out of step with accepted medical principles and often challenges common sense.

The counterintuitive health advice does not end with artery-clogging animal foods and risky raw milk. The WAPF continually endorses many inaccurate and outdated dietary recommendations that do not meet the nutritional standards of modern science and are potentially dangerous.

Unusual Dietary Recommendations of the WAPF:

The feeding of sea salt to infants and babies
Homemade raw milk formula with whey, lactose and oils
Egg yolks for infants as early as four months
Cod liver oil for infants from four months of age
Introducing chicken livers and beef broth at six months of age
Limiting fruits and vegetables in children’s diets
Homemade stock made from animal bones
Butter and shellfish and castor oil compress for constipation
Liberal use of animal fats such as lard, tallow, and butter
Full-fat dairy products, preferably raw
Egg yolks, cream, coconut, and palm and palm kernel oil
Adding poached animal brains to other ground meats

Since the 1950s, about twenty thousand articles have been written documenting the link between a diet high in saturated fat and low in vegetables, beans, fruit, and other plant-based foods and the increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world and there are thousands of research scientists who would take the recommendations of the Weston Price Foundation to task.

Quackwatch describes the Foundation as promoting questionable dietary strategies: “Its (Weston Price Foundation) newsletter, book catalog, and information service promote food faddism, megavitamin therapy, homeopathy, chelation therapy, and many other dubious practices.”

According to best-selling author and health advocate John Robbins:

Weston Price never once mentioned the words soy, soybean, tofu, or soymilk in his five hundred-page opus and spoke quite positively about lentils and other legumes, yet the foundation has taken it upon itself to be vehemently and aggressively anti-soy.

Regrettably, those currently running the Weston A. Price Foundation seem to be oblivious to the spirit of compassion, which motivated the work of the man under whose name they act.

Sadly, they are not just intolerant of people who eat or think differently than the way they advocate; they frequently demean and condemn those with whom they disagree. There is a nastiness, a mean-spiritedness to their activities that is not worthy of the man in whose footsteps they presume to follow.

Robbins continues:

The Weston A. Price Foundation exudes an attitude of “you’re either with us or you’re against us” that is reminiscent of the dark side of cults.  

Those authors and researchers who the foundation disagrees with are caustically mocked. If those authors happen to subscribe to the findings of modern nutritional science, they are condemned for being politically correct. Reputable scientists who dare suggest that saturated fat contributes to heart disease are denounced for being as PC as PC can be—and totally ignorant.

The forces promoting the anti-soy information that has garnered so much attention make no attempt to mask their anti-vegetarian agenda. They quote many obscure animal studies and often reference a single study with inconclusive results that was never duplicated.

Their articles and websites advance the idea that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are not a cause of heart disease, and that they do not interfere with blood vessel function.

That’s quite a news flash for millions of people who have undergone angioplasty and bypass surgery. The soy antagonists contend that cholesterol, which is found exclusively in animal products, and saturated fat that is only found in any significant amount in tropical oils in the plant kingdom, are actually healthful dietary components.

To suggest that arteries clogged with plaque made up of saturated fat and cholesterol do not reduce the flow of blood to critical organs such as the heart and the brain is illogical and unsound.

To suggest that dietary fat and cholesterol do not contribute mightily to diseases such as atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease is an opinion that does not have the support of modern medicine.

A quote from researchers of one study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition:

During the past several decades, reduction in fat intake has been the main focus of national dietary recommendations to decrease risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

Metabolic studies have long established that the type of fat, but not total amount of fat, predicts serum cholesterol levels. In addition, results from epidemiologic studies and controlled clinical trials have indicated that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is more effective in lowering risk of CHD than simply reducing total fat consumption.

Chris Masterjohn works for the WAPF and has written a number of articles, such as, “Meat, Organs, Bones and Skin” and “Beyond Cholesterol” extolling the benefits of a high fat, meat-based diet loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol.

He, along with a few other WAPF followers, has embarked on a noisy and rather nasty campaign to discredit The China Study, which was published in 2006 by T. Colin Campbell, PhD who authored the book with his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, MD.

The China Study examines the relationship between consuming animal products and the onset of many chronic diseases, such as cancers of the breast, prostate, and large bowel, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as osteoporosis, degenerative brain disease, macular degeneration, and autoimmune disease.

The New York Times called the book, which draws on The China Project conducted by Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine over the course of twenty years, “The Grand Prix of epidemiology.”

The China Project was conducted in China where genetically similar populations tend to live in the same way, in the same place, and eat the same foods for their entire lives.

The China Project analyzed a survey of death rates for 12 kinds of cancer in over 2,400 counties and 880 million people and studied the relationship between mortality rates and dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors in 65 counties in China, which were mostly rural.

What was Dr. Campbell’s conclusion? A whole foods, plant-based diet is the optimal nutritional approach to reduce the risk of chronic illness and disease. The extraordinary success of this book and Dr. Campbell’s voluminous and well-regarded body of work has made him a target for these anti-soy crusaders, who are vehemently anti-vegetarian.

Another source of strident anti-soy invective is The SoyonlineService, a website operated by Richard James and his wife, Valerie, who are New Zealand dairy farmers and bird breeders.

Their widely broadcast claims that the phytoestrogens in soy have deleterious effects began, following the devastating demise of a number of birds in their care.

Apparently, in 1992 this New Zealand couple fed their parrots a variety of bird food, which contained soy and corn flour. To their horror, the birds began to sicken and die after suffering multiple organ failure.

They attributed the illness and subsequent demise of their birds to soy present in the bird feed, even though it contained other ingredients.

A most reasonable explanation might very well be that the corn in the feed was infected with a common fungal pathogen, which is well known to cause the kind death and disease suffered by their birds.

Mold is a term used to describe the various forms of fungus that can contaminate crops and animal feed. Mycotoxins are the highly toxic byproduct of mold growth. Myco means fungus and toxin means poison. Mycotoxins can cause a broad spectrum of acute and chronic disease in both humans and animals.

Fungal toxins, such as zearalenone or aflatoxin, are molds that are common in crops such as corn and wheat and are caused by poor storage or growing conditions. A sampling of corn in Argentina in 1995 showed the universal presence of zearalenone.

When certain types of fungus grow on food, they produce small amounts of mycotoxins. Some of these fungi (primarily Aspergillus flavus) produce the very lethal mycotoxins called aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are remarkably potent, often causing disease even when ingested in minute amounts.

Mold that is both airborne or found growing on food is dangerous to parrots. Aspergillus mold can cause the deadly disease, aspergillosis, and is found growing on foods that have been handled or stored improperly. Aspergillus mold is particularly common on grains such as corn.

Although any variety of mycotoxin can cause health problems, aflatoxins are the one that is most likely to appear in bird feed. Birds are well known to be extra sensitive to aflatoxin exposure and the resulting liver damage.

When consumed over time, even small amounts of this fungal contaminant can weaken liver function. The liver has a number of functions such as detoxification, the workings of the immune system, and digestion. Therefore, aflatoxin can cause liver damage and disease and also lead to other chronic disorders.

Corn is the major crop affected by Zearalenone and when feed grain contaminated with this fungus is ingested, the result can be the onset of a wide variety of reproductive problems.

It is a matter of some concern that these poisons are completely heat stable and can remain on the food indefinitely. As soon as the fungus grows on the plant and produces the aflatoxin, neither cooking nor freezing will destroy it.

Dick James contends that soy is at the root of their bird breeding issues. However, if soy were the cause of immune system shutdown and multiple organ failure, why haven’t we heard of any other such claims?

Surely many more breeders would be reporting health issues with such a dire consequences. To attribute the illnesses and mortality their flock experienced to a single ingredient not uncommon in bird feed just doesn’t seem logical. It is more feasible to suggest that the parrots in New Zealand were fed contaminated bird feed, unbeknownst to their breeders, Dick and Valerie James.

Further allegations emerged from the SoyOnLineService attributing everything from thyroid disease to the rise in homosexuality to the phytoestrogens in soy, dubbing them potent chemical toxins.

The SoyOnlineService has mounted an Internet-based crusade against soy products. The first paragraph on their website, soyonline.com, is a wholesale indictment of the soy industry, characterizing the entire industry as “lying marketers” who hide the truth about soy.

The SoyOnlineService website makes absurd unsupported statements such as, “Soy was never a staple in Asia,” and that “Asians eat very little soy.” These anti-soy activists have launched a crusade to have soy formula removed from the marketplace and, along with the WAPF, have been threatening a class action lawsuit in New Zealand and Australia since 2007.

We sort through these and other allegations here; however, it should be noted that the phytoestrogens in soy are also found in other plant foods, notably garbanzo beans, sweet potatoes, red clover, taro, and millet.

I cannot move on without pointing out that homosexuality has been documented from the beginning of recorded history among humans and animals. There is no correlation between homosexuality and whether a culture does or does not eat soyfoods, and there is no indication that the incidence of homosexuality is on the rise. If anything has changed it is that society is increasingly accepting of homosexuals and they can be more open.

Fallon and Enig call soy infant formula “birth control pills for babies,” and have promoted Dick and Valerie James and their anti-soy formula campaign extensively.

Soy infant formula has been on the market for decades and yet no pattern of abnormalities such as those described by the James’ SoyOnlineService have emerged among the millions of adults who were nourished with soy formula as infants.

Thomas Badger, PhD Director, Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute explains:

Modern soy formula has been around for probably thirty years or more and in that period of time there have been over twenty-five million kids who have grown up on soy formula and there are no verified reports in valid peer reviewed journals with adverse effects of soy formula. So that’s got to tell you a lot—I mean 20 these kids grow up to be as normal as any other kids as adults.

Other players who have emerged among the anti-soy contingent include Joseph Mercola, D.O. He is an osteopathic physician and online marketer with a newsletter and a wide-ranging line of products, from supplements, shower filters, and tanning oil to saunas and bamboo toilet paper.

Dr. Mercola claims that consuming pasteurized milk instead of raw milk is a cause of autism and that coconut oil is the well-kept secret to weight loss, detoxification, and reversal of heart disease, and that it kills viruses!

Dr. Mercola, who is a very vocal critic of soy, has been reprimanded by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has received three warning letters for making unsubstantiated claims regarding products such as coconut oil, chlorella, and diagnostic cancer screening tools.

Dr. Mercola and the WAPF preach that saturated fat is good for you and quote articles with a modicum of dissent while ignoring thousands of well-documented, peer-reviewed studies to the contrary. The writers quote each other and ignore reputable modern-day research. Worse, they often distort what has been stated in legitimate studies in order to shore up assertions such as “saturated fat is healthy and not related to heart disease.”

Dr. Mercola has a website devoted to soy with headlines such as, “Soy: This ‘Miracle Health Food’ Has Been Linked to Brain Damage and Breast Cancer,” citing “hard evidence” for a litany of maladies. And whom does he cite? WAPF author, Kaala Daniels.

If the avalanche of allegations weren’t so serious, then claims like boys growing breasts and soy causing infertility would be hilarious and all of Asia would be long overdue for a meltdown.

The greater tragedy is that all of the hype and hysteria has frightened consumers and denied them the health benefits of including soyfoods in their diet.