The humble soybean has nourished humans for centuries. A rich source of protein, it also delivers a healthy mix of fiber, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Decades of research have shown that people eating a traditional Asian diet — including dozens of soy-based foods, milks, pastes, and seasonings — have lower rates of heart disease, certain types of breast and colon cancer, and osteoporosis than those eating standard Western fare. Soy has come by its health halo honestly.
Yet, like many foods with proven health benefits, soy has been embraced by industrial food producers — and processed into myriad forms that have little, if any, visible relationship to the original bean. This is thanks in part to soy’s low cost (due to generous federal subsidies) and versatility, which make it irresistible to manufacturers that market to health-minded consumers.
These days, soy is a vital cog in America’s food-processing machine. Soybean oil is ubiquitous; soy flour appears in baked and packaged goods; soy lecithin, the waste product left over after soybeans are processed, is frequently used as an emulsifier; and processed soy protein is common in many foods, including veggie burgers, protein powders, and animal feed.
Because of all these hidden sources, most of us are eating more soy than we realize. And, as with any food, issues like digestive challenges, sensitivities, intolerances, and allergic responses can arise when we go overboard.
There’s also been debate around soy’s rumored links to breast cancer and hormone disruption.
So what’s the story? Is soy OK? Or is it best avoided?
“Soy is neither as good as the proponents say nor as evil as the critics claim,” says Mark Hyman, MD, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? When deciding how much soy is safe to eat, he says, the key is to consider the best available evidence.
To that end, we reached out to several health experts to get their thoughts on soy. This is what they had to say.