“Soy products: The scientific community is divided. Some say the stuff is dangerous; some say it isn’t,” stated Dr. Harold Seifried of the National Cancer Institute, who presented this conclusion to his lecture as a poignant cartoon. The scientific community is truly divided over the health efficacy of consuming soy-based products. Yet, in spite of contradictory research results, the industry continues to claim that soy is a wonder food.
Dr. Seifried was one of twelve speakers at the Twelfth International Soy Symposium held in Washington DC on October 14, 2004, sponsored by the United Soybean Board and Soyfoods Association of North America. The theme was “Creating a Healthier America: The Role of Soy.” The symposium presented the case for soy from a farmer, producer, marketer and scientific point of view, but did not represent much of any opposing view. Still, the atmosphere was more restrained and sober than at soy conferences in previous years. No scientist can honestly portray the unbridled optimism for soy characteristic of past conferences.
According to Dr. Seifried, the results of clinical trials and animal research on soy and cancer are inconclusive. Some show a very favorable response while some show little to no effect. In fact, some even show an increased risk for cancer.
Referring to epidemiological data, Dr. Seifried also hedged his bets, noting that “studies at the ‘population’ level may not hold for particular individuals. Some individuals seem to respond to soy; others have negative sequelae [results].” He noted that it was the job of scientists to present the data and the findings. What is done with the data is “best left to others.”
Seifried repeated the assertion, which has surfaced recently, that for women to receive maximum benefit from soy-based products in terms of inhibiting the risk of breast cancer, they must consume soy-based products starting early in life (before the age of twenty) and continue throughout their lives. He also mentioned that postmenopausal breast cancer patients may not benefit from soy, but that it may help younger women. (It’s not hard to imagine what the marketeers will do with these statements.)
Seigfried’s summation: The results of consuming soy to help prevent cancer are inconsistent and inconclusive.Yet Solae Corporation, a joint venture of DuPont and Bunge, filed a petition with the FDA in March 2004 to secure a health claim for soy protein isolate and cancer. (See our rebuttal. The FDA must respond by the end of November.) Organizers of the conference expressed confidence that Solae will receive their health claim in spite of the inconsistent data.
One of the most telling comments at the conference, again reflecting a moderation in enthusiasm for soy, came from Mark Messina, PhD, of Loma Linda University, probably the industry’s most well-known spokesperson. Mesina stated that the cholesterol-lowering benefits of soy touted in the late 1990s and used to secure a health claim for soy and cardiovascular disease were exaggerated. More recent research shows that soy has a much lower impact on reducing CHD risk than originally stated. Yet, the health claim for soy and CHD remains in place.
Dr. Messina chose his words carefully when he acknowledged that hype for soy often does not reflect the the actual data. He referred to the recent claim that hair growth can be restored by soy. He was also not convinced that soy protein isolates have any beneficial impacts on reducing obesity.
Like Dr. Seifried, Dr. Messina concluded that the research results are inconsistent. For instance, he cited contradictory data from studies on menopause and hot flash reduction. He lamented the broad variability in the soy products used for research purposes, which can lead to the variability in results.
Dr. Messina cited a recent Dutch study on postmenopausal women showing that cognition, bone density and cholesterol reduction were not impacted by the consumption of soy-based products. His explained away these negative results–which contradicted earlier studies–by stating that the women studied were too old (over 60 years of age) to be able to receive any benefit. Like Dr. Seifried, he claims that soy must be consumed at an earlier age to provide protection against disease.
Messina also evoked genetics to explain away inconsistent findings. The gene pool is different for Asians and Americans, he noted, so it is inappropriate to apply the results of studies carried out in Asia to an American population. Yet in spite of the doubts he expressed to his scientific colleagues, Dr. Messina dismissed any concerns about the marketing of soy on the basis of health claims.
PROTEINS AND FATS
Bill Lampert of Cargill, Inc. claimed that the quality of soy protein is equal to that in milk, eggs, and meat and that soy provides all the essential amino acids needed for good nutrition. This claim has absolutely no basis in fact. Like all legumes, the soybean lacks vital sulfur-containing amino acids cystine and methionine, and processing compromises existing ones, like lysine.
He also claimed that soy oil is healthy because it contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially those of the omega-3 type. Interestingly, efforts are now underway by the soybean industry to reduce the amount of omega-3 EFA in soybeans in order to create a new line of low-linolenic (omega 3) margarines and shortenings. Such oils would not need deodorizing and so, theoretically, would contain no trans fats but still have a long shelf life. Omega-3 fatty acids do indeed play important roles in the body chemistry but they pose enormous problems for the oil processing industry.
Both Monsanto and Dupont/Bunge recently announced that they have produced a new line of GMO soybean that has reduced amounts of omega-3 EFAs for this purpose. Monsanto’s line is called VISTIVE™, while that of DuPont/Bunge is marketed as NUTRIUM™ Low Lin Soybean Oil. These will be marketed to food producers.
We were interested to hear Mr. Lambert’s list of soy protein isolate’s functional properties, so useful to the processing industry: gelling, emulsifying, fat absorption, water holding, elasticity, solubility, viscosity, foaming, color control, cohesion-adhesion and flavor-binding. Soy is now being used as an egg replacement in baked goods to save on manufacturing costs.
NEW ALLERGEN LABELING
Lester Crawford, acting director of the FDA, spoke about allergen labeling, mandated to begin in 2005. Soy is one of eight major allergens, along with milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, shellfish and fin fish, whose presence in a product must be noted by special labeling. The industry is not happy about this development because the new labeling laws will indicate just how pervasive soy is in our food supply–products containing “hydrolyzed protein,” for example, will require a label indicating the presence of soy.
Several participants argued that allergies to milk were more widespread and more severe and that it was unfair to include soy in the list of ingredients to be singled out by allergy labeling, an argument for which Crawford showed little sympathy.
Consumer research presented by the organizers stated that 66 percent of the American population believes that trans fats are unhealthy, up from 13 percent last year. However, 86 percent still view saturated fats as unhealthy, thanks to industry propaganda.
It is clear that soybean growers and manufacturers are pressing on relentlessly to increase market share of their products. Yet it is equally clear that this increase is becoming more difficult to sustain. A representative of Revival, manufacturer of soy-based meal replacements, complained that “negative perceptions” about soy had cost the company at least one million dollars in sales last year, perhaps an early glimpse of a less-than-rosy future for soy.
Editor’s Note: While soy promoters are now flirting with the recommendation to begin soy feeding at a young age in order to prevent breast cancer, a study published in January, 2004, found that rats exposed to the soy isoflavone genistein just after birth showed “profound morphological changes in the mammary glands” at maturity (Toxicol Sci 2004 Jan;77(1):91-100).
RESPONSE TO THE SOLAE PETITION
In March, 2004, Solae, a joint venture of Dupont and Bunge, submitted a petition to the FDA for a Soy Protein and Cancer Health Claim. In their petition, they note that since the FDA authorized the Soy Protein and Coronary Heart Disease Health Claim, per capita consumption of soy protein increased from 0.78 g/day in 1998 to 2.23 g/day in 2002. Solae predicts that consumption of soy protein will double with a cancer health claim. Solae is one of the world’s largest producers of soy protein isolate (SPI) and other processed soy products.
On April 14, the Weston A. Price Foundation submitted a rebuttal to the Solae petition, urging the FDA to deny the company’s request. The report was prepared by Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, who noted that “Solae was highly selective in its choice of evidence and biased in its interpretations. It omitted many studies that show soy to be ineffective in preventing cancer, emphasized favorable outcome in studies when results were mixed and excused results of a few unfavorable studies that they included to give the illusion of balance. Most seriously, Solae omitted many well-designed studies that have suggested that soy protein can contribute to, cause and accelerate the growth of cancer.” Our 50-page response lists numerous studies implicating soy protein as a contributor to cancers of the breast, prostate and gastrointestinal tract.
The FDA must respond within 270 days, or by November 26, 2004.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2004.