Don’t be a soy loser

Misconceptions abound when it comes to soy. Is it healthy? Is it dangerous? Are some forms safe? Even so-called health and nutrition experts get it wrong.

For example, this week at the grocery store, they put a “Healthy Ideas” magazine into my bag. One of the articles in the magazine promoted the benefits of soybeans. The article stated that soybeans are low in saturated fat and cholesterol free. Plus, they’re a good source of protein.

Now, that’s true. They are low in saturated fat. But as I told you previously, saturated fat isn’t the real enemy. And furthermore, we now know that eating foods high in cholesterol doesn’t mean you’ll develop high cholesterol. And even if it did, we don’t exactly know how much of a role cholesterol plays in the development of heart disease. One major study found that half the men and women who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol. Not high levels.

The article went on to suggest eating a soy burger for lunch, instead of a hamburger. It said the soy might help protect you against heart disease and some types of cancer.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence for these claims.

First of all, most conventionally grown soybeans in this country are genetically modified (GM). You want to avoid this kind of franken-food at all costs. In addition, even eating raw, organic soybeans everyday may not be the answer for great health either. I’ll explain more about that in a minute.

In general, I recommend you avoid artificially processed foods–including soy burgers! As I said a few weeks ago, the only soybean products you should regularly consume are the ones that have been culturally processed.

What does cultural processing mean?

All the regions around the world have culinary traditions. And long before big agribusiness began artificially manipulating foods, human cultures learned how to harvest, prepare and cook plants so that they would be safe and nutritious to eat. Anthropologists and food scientists have long called this “cultural processing.”

In 1979, soybeans overtook corn for the most acreage devoted to a single crop in the U.S. And today, soybeans are everywhere. In fact, they’re now the leading cash crop in the U.S. Food manufacturers grind up the soybeans–genetically modified soybeans, of course–and add them to their processed foods. Soy adds texture, bulk, and protein to their products. So, you find GM soy protein hidden in lots and lots of processed foods–from cereal bars to corn chips to chicken nuggets.

But Asians knew about the problems with raw soybeans long before food companies started adding soy to their chicken nuggets.

In fact, soybeans provided the leading source of protein in the Asian populations’ diet for generations. And until very recently, western countries never considered soy an important food.

And there is an important reason why soy was slow to be accepted…

Without cultural processing, soybeans can rob your body of nutrients. In fact, eating culturally unprocessed soybeans interferes with digestion and absorption of any and all foods consumed. Over time, it creates a condition similar to what people with cystic fibrosis suffer in the gastro-intestinal tract. The body cannot absorb the nutrients it takes in.

Now, Jack and Jill Consumer have no idea about this. And when they read the “Healthy Ideas” newsletter from the grocery store, eating a soy burger for lunch sounds like a perfectly good idea.

But it’s not.

At the end of WWII, the U.S. shipped large quantities of soybeans to Korea, Japan and Germany. The Asian populations thrived on these exports. But starving Germans kept getting sick whenever they ate them–losing weight and suffering other ill effects. In short order, the U.S. had to stop shipping soy to Germany.

Western scientists finally figured out what the Asians have known for generations and generations…raw soybeans contain a potent anti-trypsin factor. Trypsin is a critical digestive enzyme. It helps break down nutrients from the saliva to the small intestines. The anti-trypsin in soy interferes with this normal digestive enzyme.

You can remove the anti-trypsin factor in soybeans by boiling them for several hours. But the prolonged heat also destroys the nutrient value of the soybean itself.

However, U.S. food scientists discovered that they could separate the anti-trypsin from the rest of the soy protein by combining soy with calcium or magnesium. The anti-trypsin remains behind in the liquid. And you can separate it from the solid soy food.

However, people in Korea, Japan and China already knew about this scientific discovery in food science. This is their cultural “process” for preparing doufu or tofu (soybean curd). The doufu is made using natural sources of calcium. And tofu uses natural sources of magnesium salts.

The vast majority of soybeans in Asia are consumed as bean curd. They separate the liquid anti-tryptic factor, press it out of the curd, and then discard it.

An exception is in Indonesia, where they use a natural mold (Rhizopus) to ferment the curd into tempeh. Natural molds deactivate the anti-trypsin factor. They also enhance the production of vitamin B12, which is often lacking in vegetarian diets.

They also use soybeans to make soy sauce. Here again, they ferment the soybeans with mold to remove the anti-trypsin factor. And then they add the condiment to rice and vegetable dishes. It provides some protein to the meal. And also helps with vitamin B production.

Soy is deficient in the sulfur-containing amino acid methionine. However, rice is high in methionine. So that’s why you will always see soy sauce and tofu paired with rice in traditional Asian cooking. Together, they provide a nutritious, balanced meal that is also safe to eat and digest. Other traditional uses of soybeans include sprouting. And production of soymilk.

Just don’t get fooled into buying the hazardous veggie burger. Even if you read about it in your grocery store’s “health” magazine.

Raw, organic soybeans in the pod–called edamame–won’t hurt you if you only eat them occasionally. But don’t make it part of your regular routine. The anti-trypsin factor can impair your digestion.