Whining, hysteria and fear marked the Sixth International Symposium on the Role of Soy in Preventing and Treating Chronic Disease and a special one-day symposium entitled Effects of Soy on Growth and Development: How Much Do We Know? held in Chicago October 29 to November 2, 2005.
As in 2001 and 2003, I attended as a journalist and came with contracts from Explore, Wise Traditions and other magazines. So, I assumed that I would attend the 2006 symposium as a guest. The first morning I showed up early, picked up my press pass and sat near the front of the room. One hour into the morning presentation, the entire event was disrupted while I was unceremoniously evicted. Someone important had recognized me, at which point the publicity office found out it had made a huge mistake. They were ever so sorry but press passes were not being given away this year!
In fact, the press was conspicuously absent. Only three of us had shown up–myself and two tech writers from Belgium. In earlier years the soy industry had courted editors and journalists, and set us up for press conferences with industry scientists designed to “help” us understand all the “good news” we were meant to hear about soy.
Fortunately, I’d come prepared to pay the hefty entry fees and returned to the hall just in time to witness industry reaction to last July’s Israeli Health Ministry warning and new strict regulations being implemented in France.
In brief, the Israelis have taken the strongest and most courageous stance of any government to date, warning that infants should not receive soy formula, that children up to age 18 should not eat soy foods or drink soy milk more than once per day to a maximum of 3 times per week and that adults should exercise caution because of adverse effects on fertility and increased breast cancer risk.
The French meanwhile have been studying soy isoflavones and have failed to be impressed by the industry’s claims about health benefits or their assurances of safety. According to Mariette Gerber, MD, PhD, Professor, Centre de Recherche en Cancerologie, Groupe d’Epidemiologie Metabolique, the French government is implementing new regulations that will require manufacturers to reduce the isoflavone content of soy infant formula to one part per million and will require warning labels stating that soy foods and soy milk are unsafe for children under 3 years of age, children being treated for hypothyroidism and women at risk for breast cancer.
Attendees were not respectful. Indeed, one insulted her, saying that even onions contain possible health hazards, to which Dr. Gerber retorted, “Do you feed infants with only onions?”
Although the soy industry has largely succeeded in putting spins on unfavorable studies, government warnings are hard to keep under wraps. Indeed, so much bad news about soy isoflavones has leaked out that Mindy Kurzer, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, jumped up to the microphone and cried, “People are hysterical. Let’s just take the isoflavones out of soy formula. Take them out! Stop the fight. Stop the hysteria. People are talking about this all over the world. There’s press right here in this room. I plead with you to be responsible. The soy industry is going to be destroyed by this hysteria.”
Others too pleaded with me. At the welcoming cocktail reception, Nancy Chapman of the Soyfoods Association of North America, cornered me and insisted that she knows of no vegetarians or other health-conscious people who have been harmed by soy and that she just can’t imagine anyone eating soy every day, much less several times a day. Right. I was then confronted by a representative from Solbar of Israel, who insisted that soy is “imperfect but the one and only solution to world hunger.” My attempts to talk to him about small farmers, cottage industries and the need to think locally rather than foster dependence on products from global agribusinesses and mega corporations fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the conversation ended abruptly with his strong recommendation that I “make myself useful, move to some third world country and help people grow chickens.” And then maybe I could “die of bird flu.”
Back home in Santa Fe, I learned from Larry Dossey, editor of Explore: The Journal for Science and Healing, that soy industry spokesman, Mark Messina, PhD, had chickened out of a soy debate. Dr. Dossey had offered each of us 4000 words to make our case. Without Messina, the debate was cancelled. Clearly, Messina wanted no public debate on events at the Sixth International.
Soy Not the Magic Bullet for Heart Disease
The new year brought some of the worst news of all for the soy industry. The American Heart Association has reversed its position on soy, now saying in its journal Circulation that soy has little effect on cholesterol and is unlikely to prevent heart disease.
Back in 2000, the AHA had endorsed the FDA-approved health claim that 25 grams per day of soy protein in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol prevents heart disease. However, mounting evidence that soy does not lower cholesterol or other heart disease risk factors led the AHA to reconsider the evidence. After reviewing 22 studies, an AHA panel concluded that large amounts of soy might reduce LDL-cholesterol but had no effect on HDL, triglycerides, lipoprotein(a) or blood pressure. A separate analysis of soy isoflavones, the plant estrogens found in soy protein, showed no effect on cholesterol or other lipids.
Sales of soy protein products have increased 200 percent since November 1999 when the FDA allowed a soy-prevents-heart-disease health claim and the AHA encouraged soy consumption. Few people know that, in allowing the health claim, the FDA disregarded warnings from its own expert scientists and based its decision almost entirely on just one study–a 1995 meta-analysis by James W. Anderson, PhD, which was funded by soy industry giant Protein Technologies International, now Solae. However, this fall at the Chicago symposium, Dr. Anderson conceded that most studies since 1995 have reported “less impressive results.”
With attendees concerned that neither soy protein nor soy isoflavones cut it, industry scientists trotted out a new component of soy that might possibly lower cholesterol–a soy globulin.
In addition, the AHA panel concluded that neither soy protein nor soy isoflavones reduced hot flashes and that soy isoflavones do not prevent breast, endometrial or prostate cancer. The AHA strongly recommended that the public not take soy isoflavone supplements because neither efficacy nor safety have been established.
The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also recently struck a blow against the myth that soy prevents heart disease. In a report issued in September, 2005, the agency concluded that much of the research carried out on soy is “inconclusive,” that soy products appear to exert “a small benefit on LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides” but that those effects are of “small clinical effect in individuals.” In addition, the agency determined that studies on soy and menopause were inconsistent, contradictory, of poor quality and too short duration.
Finally, a study performed by University of Colorado scientists published in the January, 2006, issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation indicates that soy foods could seriously harm patients afflicted with cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that affects 1 in 500 Americans and is the leading cause of death in young athletes. Time to warn athletes and fitness buffs about the dangers of soy energy bars and protein shakes.
Soy Not So Good for Fertility Either
The January, 2006, issue of Biology of Reproduction reports that genistein, a plant estrogen found in soybeans, can disrupt the development of the ovaries of newborn female mice, causing reproductive problems and infertility.
In the study, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), gave injections of soy genistein to three different groups of female mice during the first five days of their lives. They found adverse effects at all levels, including doses comparable to levels of genistein found in soy infant formulas given to human infants. Mice treated with the highest dose became infertile and mice treated with the lower doses were subfertile, meaning they had fewer pregnancies and fewer pups per litter. Mice receiving the highest level of genistein showed a high percentage of oocyte (egg cell) clustering, making fertilization much less likely to occur.
“We knew that genistein was linked to reproductive problems later in life but we wanted to find out when the damage occurred,” said Retha R. Newbold, a developmental endocrinologist at NIEHS. “The study showed that genistein caused alterations to the ovaries during early development, which is partly responsible for the reproductive problems found in adult mice.” A previous NIEHS study showed that newborn mice given genistein grew up to experience irregular menstrual cycles, erratic ovulation and other problems indicative of infertility.
“I don’t think we can dismiss the possibility that these phytoestrogens are having an effect on the human population,” said Wendy Jefferson, PhD, lead author of the study. NIEHS director Dr. David Schwartz added, “Although we are not entirely certain about how these animal studies on genistein translate to the human population, there is some reason to be cautious.”
In fact, there are many reasons to be cautious and this NIEHS study should encourage the United States to follow the examples set by the Israeli and French governments and issue warnings to discourage the sale of soy formula.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2005/Spring 2006.