Soy does not help people suffering from asthma. That was the conclusion of a study published in the May 26 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The researchers said they were “disappointed” because they had hoped that soy would prove to be a safe, non-toxic and inexpensive alternative to asthma medications.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 25.9 million Americans, including one in eight children and one in twelve adults, suffer from asthma, at an economic cost of at least fifty-six billion dollars per year in direct costs for hospital visits, doctors and drugs and in indirect costs from lost school and work days. Experts say they do not know why asthma rates have been steadily increasing over the past twenty years; most think the best that can be done is to educate people and medicate symptoms. As Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), put it, “Asthma is a serious, lifelong disease that unfortunately kills thousands of people each year and adds billions to our nation’s health care costs. We have to do a better job educating people about managing their symptoms and how to correctly use medicines to control asthma so they can live longer, more productive lives while saving health care costs.”
Could soy come to the rescue? Lewis J. Smith MD, of the Department of Medicine at Northwestern University, and colleagues hoped so. They thought the soy estrogens known as isoflavones would help adolescent and adult patients suffering from poorly controlled asthma because asthma rates are lower in Asia where they assumed that people consume massive amounts of soy. (In fact, in most of Asia, soy is consumed in small quantities as a condiment in the diet and not as a staple food.) The researchers were also inspired by in vitro studies that showed soy genistein can reduce eosinophil inflammation, an important factor in asthma. As quoted in Science Daily, Dr. Smith said, “There was enough epidemiological and biological evidence data to support looking at this association.”
Smith and his team carried out the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial between May 2010 and August 2012 at nineteen adult and pediatric pulmonary and allergy centers in the American Lung Association Asthma Clinical Research Center’s network. They randomly assigned one hundred ninety-three patients to receive a soy isoflavone supplement containing 100 mg of total isoflavones and one hundred ninety-three patients to receive a placebo, and did blood tests to prove the subjects actually took the soy supplement. The patients were all older than twelve years, non smokers, non soy eaters and regularly taking asthma medications (either inhaled corticosteroids or a leukotriene modifier).
After twenty-four weeks, the soy isoflavone-taking subjects and the placebo-taking controls showed no significant differences in forced expiratory volume or symptoms as measured by the Asthma Control Test Score, Marks Asthma Quality of Life Score, number of episodes of poor asthma control or other measures of systemic inflammation. This occurred even though the soy isoflavones were so well absorbed that blood levels of the isolflavone genistein rose from 4.76 ng/mL to 37.67 ng/mL over the course of the study. The researchers had thought these high levels would surely inhibit airway inflammation, but they did not.
As typically happens when soy fails to shine, the researchers trotted out the usual excuses about how soy should work and would work if they could only determine the right dose, stage of the life cycle or other factor. In this case, no one seemed to be knocking the study itself, which even the soy industry seems to concede was well-designed. That said, the great white hope remains that soy isoflavones can—and will—control asthma if begun early in childhood rather than waiting until adolescence or later.
Making the best of it, Dr. Smith said his study “highlights the importance of focusing on overall health to manage disease, rather than individual strategies such as increasing soy consumption. . . . You are what you eat, but that’s a whole constellation of foods, not just a single food or a single component of a food. Instead of focusing on supplements, we should be taking a more holistic approach.”
What that “holistic approach” might be, he does not say. The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and by the American Lung Association. Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) provided the soy isoflavone supplement and placebo. Although Smith and colleagues had hoped “soy” would show its mettle, they disclosed few ties to the soy industry though one had received consultant fees and another clinical-trial funding from Novartis. Nearly all, however, disclosed financial ties to Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Astro-Zeneca and other vaccine and drug companies. And it’s Big Pharm, after all, which stand to gain from Big Soy’s loss.
UPDATES ON SOY LITIGATION
SOY PRISON LAWSUIT: On February 25, 2015, Judge Baker of the United States District Court for the central district of Illinois cited conflicting scientific evidence when he dismissed the claim of Harris and others that the feeding of too much soy constituted a violation of their Eighth Amendment constitutional rights. With the backing of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Harris and the other plaintiffs will appeal to the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, located in Chicago.
SOY LABELING PETITION: In 2008, WAPF sent a citizen petition to the FDA urging regulators to withdraw the claim that soy could prevent heart disease. After more than six years and no response from FDA, WAPF is suing the agency to address the petition. After meetings with FDA officials and James Turner, Esq, the Foundation’s general counsel, the FDA promised a reply within six months.
FOUR HUNDRED TWENTY KIDNEY STONES BLAMED ON EXCESSIVE TOFU
Doctors in China have removed four hundred twenty kidney stones from a man’s body, blaming an excessive amount of tofu in his daily diet.
Mr. He from Zhejiang Province in eastern China, checked into the Dongyang People’s Hospital complaining of intense pain in his abdomen last month. A CT scan revealed that his left kidney was packed full of stones, most of them tiny. Doctors operated in an agonizing procedure that lasted about two hours.
Mr He said he had a history of suffering from kidney stones. Twenty years ago he had ten stones removed using a procedure called lithotripsy, which sends shock waves to break up stones in the kidney, bladder, or ureter until they are small enough to pass in the urine. “I have worked as a doctor for thirty years and have never seen so many stones,” said Zhou Changchun, the attending surgeon, according to state newspaper Qianjiang Evening Post.
The unusually high number of stones was attributed to the high concentration of gypsum tofu, a popular local food, in Mr. He’s diet. The tofu contains calcium sulphate, which cannot be expelled from the body without a sufficient intake of water. Tofu, like all soy products, is also high in oxalic acid, which can cause kidney stones.
Wei Yubin, the chief surgeon, said that the kidney would have stopped working had Mr. He delayed seeking medical attention any longer, and the kidney most likely removed.
Lewis J. Smith, Ravi Kalhan, Robert A. Wise, Elizabeth A. Sugar, John J. Lima, Charles G. Irvin, Allen J. Dozor, Janet T. Holbrook. Effect of a Soy Isoflavone Supplement on Lung Function and Clinical Outcomes in Patients With Poorly Controlled Asthma. JAMA, 2015; 313 (20): 2033.
“Soy supplements don’t improve asthma, study concludes.” ScienceDaily, 26 May 2015. sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150526124809.htm
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2015