The British government has a standing expert Committee on Toxicity in Foods and the Environment. It is rather endearingly called COT! It has turned out to be an appropriate acronym, because in May, 2002 the Committee turned its attention to investigating the risks of aberrant sexual development and infertility caused by the soybean estrogens present in soy baby formulas. The report was released in October, 2002.
It is a massive achievement that a Committee of a major European government has examined soy products and isoflavone supplements in the face of heated denials of soy processing interests that either there are no estrogens in soy products (“our processing removes the toxins” has been a favorite war cry) or that they are beneficial (“why complain, they are good for you” has been another). It is also a tribute to a small group of scientifically justified agitators on three continents. They are the Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington, DC, the Food Commission in England, and Soyonlineservice in New Zealand.
The Draft Report of the COT Working Group on Phytoestrogens in the diet is now available on the website of the UK Food Standards Agency (www.food.gov.uk/foodindustry/Consultations/ukwideconsults/cotphytohealth).
As the greatest phytoestrogen risks by far to consumers are the estrogenic toxins genistein and daidzein present in all modern soy products and food ingredients, the Report focuses almost exclusively on soy and isoflavone supplements.
A major finding is a very satisfactory outcome for those of us who have been horrified at the advertising of isoflavones as having benefits in menopause—the COT has found no proof of any benefits at all. Here are COT’s exact words from key points of their Chapter on Hormonal Effects: “The weight of evidence does not strongly support the view that supplementation of the diet with soy or isoflavones alleviates menopausal symptoms.”
And although the COT does not mention the special risks of having mid-life women consume large amounts of hormone-bending chemicals, it can be deduced from the general conclusion in section 18.2.
This finding could have significant international ramifications because, if countries individually enforce the International Code of Advertising Practice, such dangerous puffery will stop. That Code of Practice requires that “advertisements not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity, or exaggerated claim, is likely to mislead the consumer.”
So if you live in a country where you can appeal to an Advertising Complaints Board, be sure to complain whenever you see ads making claims that phytoestrogens are an aid to menopausal difficulties. If there were truth in advertising, then ads for phytoestrogens would say: “This stuff does not do what we say it does, and may be dangerous to your thyroid.”
As for claims that these products improve hormonal balance, prevent prostate cancers, prevent heart disease, stop osteoporosis and improve brain function, the COT found no proof of any of this either.
Unfortunately, COT erred in stating there is no evidence of hormonal effects in men. These British experts seem to have overlooked the considerable body of research that soy phytoestrogens stop production of testosterone!
(See www.soyonlineservice.co.nz, Male Health.)
It will be no surprise to readers of Wise Traditions that COT presents ample evidence that phytoestrogens can cause infertility, endometriosis, sexual dysfunction and masculinization of females, as well as feminization of males, in a variety of animal and bird species. These were their conclusions from their literature review in Chapter 9, “Phytoestrogens & Fertility and Development.”
Similarly, Chapter 10, “Phytoestrogens and the Thyroid” reviews sixty years of literature and research and finds that soy and isoflavones harm the thyroid gland, especially in women and children.
In Chapter 11 the COT examines “Phytoestrogens and the Central Nervous System.” As we have been warning for years, the COT concluded that isoflavones affect the central nervous system, and particularly the connection between the brain and the reproductive organs. In scientific terms, “they disrupt the pituitary-gonadal axis.”
COT specifically addresses infants as being the highest-risk and most vulnerable subgroup of the human population to disruption of the endocrine system’s functions Here is what they say “. . . soy-based infant formula should only be given to infants for clinical reasons, and that doctors and other health care workers are made aware of the potential interreactions between phytoestrogens in these formulas and thyroid function.”
Most Wise Traditions readers will realize that, if the thyroid goes out of whack, the effects can flow through the whole body system that regulates body heat and digestion of food. Thyroid problems can cause constipation, hair loss, infertility, and reduced brain function and learning ability.
The COT is forthright in its findings, but rather than make bold conclusions, it sinks into jargon. Thus in Chapter 18, “Conclusions,” Section 18.2, we read the following:
“Phytoestrogens are biologically active when administered to animals and humans and have been known to elicit their effects via a number of mechanisms:
- Interact with estrogen receptors to modulate estrogen responsive genes
- Inhibit enzymes involved in estrogen biosynthesis and metabolism
- Modulate thyroid hormone biosynthesis
- Inhibit protein kinases and interact with the cell cycle and with proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis pathways
- Inhibit topoisemerase
- Exhibit antioxidant reactions.”
In spite of the alarming conclusions enumerated in the body of its report, the COT makes no recommendations about removing soy products from the marketplace. Readers will have to consider for themselves, and make their own judgements, whether a food that has numerous reported adverse effects is safe or should be sold to unsuspecting consumers.
Listing of Studies Showing Adverse Effects of Soy
As part of our ongoing efforts to keep the public up-to-date on the problems with modern soy foods, we have compiled two lists of studies showing adverse effects of soy: one lists studies showing the toxicity of soy isoflavones (estrogen-like compounds in soy) and the other lists studies showing problems with consumption of soy foods in general. We looked only at studies published in scientific journals—the total was over 150! Very often, the conclusions posted in the abstracts of these studies glossed over negative findings, or even presented these findings as beneficial. Most interesting to us was the large number of recent studies showing carcinogenic and mutagenic effects of soy isoflavones. (We have been accused of citing only older studies and ignoring more recent “positive” findings.) These two lists were submitted to the COT in the UK, and the USDA in the US.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2002.