In September of this year, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health presented evidence at the 63rd annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine showing that soy phytoestrogens can seriously lower a man’s sperm count. This is old news to Weston A. Price Foundation members. Over the years, we’ve often reported on research that links soy consumption to poor sperm quality, lower testosterone levels and sagging libidos.
Dr. Chavarro and colleagues studied 100 men whose partners were having trouble getting pregnant. Semen analyses showed that the men with the highest levels of soy food intake—approximately a half serving per day—had 41 million sperm per milliliter fewer than men who did not consume any soy—that’s 41 million fewer sperm per milliliter on just one-half cup of soy food per day! The researchers used a questionnaire listing 15 soy-based foods to determine soy consumption over the preceding three months.
The men were eating—on average—far less soy than the amount consumed by many vegetarians and other health-conscious men. Yet it was enough to seriously lower their sperm count.
OPRAH’S SOY MILK HABIT
Oprah Winfrey’s announcement last month on Good Morning America that she ”blew out” her thyroid brought much needed attention to the underreported epidemic of thyroid disorders in this country. Sadly, few commentators noted that Oprah’s consumption of soy milk and other soy products might have played a key role in the development of her thyroid problems.
Oprah has told her viewers that she loves shakes made with soy milk and blueberries. She has applauded when guests such as Julia Roberts have talked about how much they “love” their soy milk. Unfortunately, soy can seriously damage the thyroid gland, most often causing hypothyroidism, with its symptoms of weight gain, lethargy, fatigue and malaise. In Oprah’s case, soy may have initially over stimulated her thyroid, causing a revved up metabolism and sleepless nights. With Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—the likeliest diagnosis for Oprah—it is quite common for someone’s thyroid gland to go hyper for a period before falling into the exhaustion of hypothyroidism.
In addition to drinking soy milk, Oprah may have been taking soy shakes or supplements high in phytoestrogens. Oprah has consulted privately with Christiane Northrup, MD, author of the bestseller, The Wisdom of Menopause, for help during her menopausal years; Oprah says she keeps Dr. Northrup’s book on her bedside table. Dr. Northrup is a leader in body/mind therapies— and her bestselling book contains much wisdom about the psychological and spiritual components of menopause—but she has misled many midlife women with advice to self medicate with Revival soy shakes and other soy products. Revival contains dangerously high levels of soy phytoestrogens—at levels per serving four times greater than those causing thyroid damage in healthy Japanese men and women. Given her avowed consumption of Revival products, it’s probably no accident that Dr. Northrup herself has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
In spite of mounting evidence that soy causes, contributes to, or accelerates the growth of breast cancer, the soy industry is using Breast Cancer Awareness Month to push its products on unsuspecting women.
Chief among the companies using Breast Cancer Awareness Month as part of their marketing efforts is Vitasoy, which has launched a breast health education initiative that includes giving away soy milk in bright pink containers called “Pinkies” to women attending Breast Cancer Awareness Month activities such as the Komen Races for the Cure in Boston and Miami.
A Japanese study published this October in the journal, Cancer Causes and Control, showed that soy consumption offers no protection and has no effect on breast cancer risk. Researchers from Nagoya University were curious as to whether Asians enjoy lower rates of breast cancer because of their soy consumption. Using data from the Japan Collaborative Cohort (JACC), they asked whether soy foods really have a protective effect and found that Asians on high-soy diets did not have a lower incidence of breast cancer. Clearly it’s time to credit other dietary and lifestyle factors for lower rates of breast cancer in Japan.
The soy industry has dived headfirst into aquaculture. Using funds from the US soybean farmers’ checkoff program, researchers have focused their efforts on identifying “barriers to soy”—meaning why fish won’t or can’t eat it—in the diets of marine fish such as salmon, pompano, amberjack, Mediterranean sea bass, sea bream and cobia. Researchers are also looking into ways to increase the quantity of soy in marine shrimp diets. Soy already constitutes more than half the diets of some farm-raised, freshwater fish. Because different species of fish have different dietary requirements, researchers are building a database to house the “soy inclusion rates” of each species. To date, projects have been located in the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Aquaculture is a growth industry (currently growing at 9 to 11 percent per year) and is expected to soar over the next decade (www.soyatech.com).
RISKS OF “FUNCTIONAL FOODS”
“Functional Foods”—also known as “neutraceuticals” or “designer foods”—should be monitored to assess long-term safety and effectiveness. That’s the word from the British Medical Journal, which recently published findings about the risks of sterol-containing margarines and yogurts. Once regarded as the waste products of the wood pulping or soybean industries, plant sterols are now proving profitable as cholesterol-lowering ingredients added to a variety of nutraceutical foods and drinks. As reported in the BMJ, sterols can trigger adverse reactions in people taking statin drugs. This occurs because both sterols and statins lower cholesterol, thus causing potentially dangerous dosage problems. In addition, plant sterols can increase heart disease risk by thickening the arteries. Consumers should also be concerned about hormonal disruption, as sterols are estrogenic. In Australia and New Zealand, sterol-containing “functional foods” must carry warning labels advising against their use by pregnant women and children.
It will be interesting to see whether worries about other nutraceuticals surface in the future. Of particular concern are “functional foods” for menopause, such as soy “enhanced” cereals and breads. Proponents of “functional foods” and “functional drinks” argue that these products allow people to eat and drink more “healthfully” without radically changing their diet. But as the BMJ noted, “at best they are likely to be technical fixes, and at worst, another confounding factor that nutritional epidemiologists will have to unravel for years to come” (www.bmj.com).
LATE BREAKING NEWS: SOY WARNING FROM GERMAN CONSUMER WATCHDOG ORGANIZATION
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin, Germany, warned parents and pediatricians last month that babies should not be given soy infant formula without clear, concrete medical reasons and then only under strict medical supervision. The German agency joins the Israeli Health Ministry, the French Food Agency and UK officials in warning against the dangers of soy infant formula.
Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), stated that the main concern for infants is the high levels of estrogenic isoflavones in the formula, which can act like hormones in the body. According to the Institute, milk allergies are not an acceptable reason for pediatricians to recommend soy formula, Dr. Hensel cited several possible medical reasons for giving soy formula to infants, including “cases of congenital, hereditary lactase deficiency and the equally rare metabolic disease galactosaemia. Lactose intolerance—whether genetic or because of a temporary gastro-intestinal disorder—is not generally a reason to choose soy formula.” Dr. Hensel also expressed concern that soy infant formula contains phytate, a natural plant component that can adversely affect the infant’s intake of minerals and trace elements. Phytates have been linked to rickets and poor bone development in babies and children, and to osteoporosis in adults.
On December 6, the agency issued a second warning, this one to adult consumers, stating that soy isoflavones offer no proven health benefits and may pose health risks. The Institute expressed concerns about the marketing of soy foods and isoflavone supplements to menopausal women. The Institute found that “the assumed positive effects of isolated isoflavones on menopausal complaints have not been sufficiently substantiated and that numerous adverse effects have been noted. . . When administered at high doses in isolated or fortified form, isoflavones impair the functioning of the thyroid gland and can change mammary gland tissue.” The Institute concluded that “it can not be ruled out that the estrogen-like effects of isoflavones could promote the development of breast cancer. The necessary long term studies to prove the safety of isoflavone containing products are not available. Nor is it currently possible to reliably establish a dose which could be considered safe.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2007.