How to navigate mixed messages on soy
This month, I've been talking a lot about protein: how much you should be eating, some of my favorite plant-based sources (like whole hemp seeds), and how to get protein- and fiber-rich beans into your diet. Today I wanted to address one of the big questions that comes up in my Plant-Powered Protein cooking classes: is soy good or bad for you?
The appearance of soy in the American diet in the last 20-30 years has exploded due to the increased popularity and necessity of vegetarian alternatives and its convenience as a cheap and available industrial filler. Soy is a complete protein, like hemp, and is versatile in the kitchen so it's easy to see why it appears in so many foods and recipes nowadays.
Chances are you've probably read or heard rumblings on both sides of the soy fence. Over the years, soy foods (think edamame, soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, etc) have been reported to help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of various cancers, and help prevent osteoporosis. Yet, you also may have read that soy is one of the most allergenic foods (it's in the top 8) and can interfere with estrogen in both men and women. The University of Maryland Medical Center has a nice summary on the research on soy. (Note: people with certain health conditions should consult a healthcare professional to learn more about whether or not soy is recommended for them.)
So today I wanted to share how I navigate this confusion in my kitchen. Like nearly all foods, it seems that soy has both good and bad properties, so instead of swearing off of it or eating it 3 times a day, I take a culinary and cultural approach: I look to how soy is traditionally used in Asian cultures like China and Japan. Typically soy shows up in the American diet as a GMO and a highly processed additive to foods like cereals, protein bars, and fake cheeses, milks, and meats. Instead, I seek out whole foods versions--ideally fermented--and consume them in small portions, the way you'd typically find them in Asian cuisines.
- Instead of a Soy Hot Dog, I'd have a few pieces of Tofu floating in Miso Soup
- Instead of a Soy Latte, I'd add a splash of Tamari to sautéed mushrooms
- Instead of a Soy Protein Bar, I'd add a few pieces of Tempeh to a vegetable salad
You can see in all of these examples, I reject a highly processed version of soy because--soy or no soy--it's still junk food! Instead, I choose a traditional preparation of soy like tofu, miso, tempeh, and tamari and use it in a small amount, up to a few times a week. Miso, tempeh, and tamari are fermented versions of soy, which may provide additional health benefits in addition to being probiotic-rich.
We'll likely be seeing much more research on soy in the coming years, but in the meantime, I'll continue to skip the soy cheese and instead use a dash of tamari to season my dinner. If you want to learn more about fermented soy and can't make this week's protein class, check out my recipe for Gado Gado, an Indonesian salad that I make with tempeh and tamari.