A Nutritionist’s Perspective: Understanding the Role of Soy in Your Diet

Modern alimentary culture has a knack for venerating food. When wonders of technological analysis reveal an element that demonstrates nourishing potential (as defined by the current nutritional paradigm), the pedestal is hoisted and the beholden food placed upon. And within a flash of a digital shutter, the food, along with it’s prospective element and any other potentially nutritious cohorts is being plucked, packaged, touted, tested, and, most of all, marketed as the next super food of the century. Inevitably comes the backlash to this fundamental idolism as the fringe groups mobilize against the system, breaking lies and bringing “truth.” They do all in their power to drag the innocent food from its altar, image bruised and packaging torn. So has been the saga for many a wonder food: wheat, dairy, vegetable oil, the list goes on. And do has been the journey of soy. As with all situations, there is some validity to each side of the soy argument, some partial correctness in each voice of the debate. True power comes from the ability to synthesize those perspectives in a unified function. This is done by surrounding each element with it’s appropriate context, thus opening the panoramic view of the road ahead including all the pitfalls to its right and left. With such a view comes the ability to walk straight down the middle.

The one thing that pro- and anti-soy proponents agree upon is that soy foods have had a place on the traditional dinner table for centuries. The divergence begins with the questions of “How?” How much of this food should be eaten to provide a healthy portion of an balanced diet? And how should soy be prepared, from seed to serving, in order to yield the nourishing properties that have served the species for centuries?

The first question has no simple answer, since the known history of soy is not exact. Soy was originally domesticated because its nitrogen-fixing properties helped keep soil fertile for other crops. Then the later development of fermentation technology made available this largely indigestible legume for consumption. Some proponents claim that soy intake of traditional Asian peoples was upwards of 50-60 grams of soy protein per day. Others suggest that this perspective is skewed, that actual daily consumption of soy protein was around 6-7 grams a day, from 50-60 grams of food products containing soy. So the debate is not over whether or not traditional cultures consumed soy on a daily basis, but over whether or not that consumption was on the level of condiment or staple.

Sadly, current scientific research serves to compound the dilemma rather than resolve. This is due to conflicting interpretations of findings and intentions motivating the research itself. The bulk of current research surrounding the potential health benefits of soy is being performed and paid for by organizations who stand to raise significant capital in the soy products market. And while the profit margin on something such as traditionally fermented miso is quite low, the profit margin on isolated component products such as soy isoflavone supplements quite high. In fact some products, such as isolated soy protein, are actually waste from other industries, thus with the added benefit of reversing the cost of waste disposal. Industry always seems to profit most from utilizing individual food components in separate products instead of keeping the food in its original, whole form. Anti-soy activists claim that this perspective, fueled by the promise of profit, lends to both misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the findings from objective research. And that both occur to the extent that public health is significantly compromised.

So modern science isn’t doing much to resolve this dilemma. Today’s research on soy treats it as more of a drug than a food, searching for the maximum tolerable limits of isoflavones, proteins, and other marketable components. It seems, instead, that the dilemma is best resolved by reintegrating traditional food practices, and also, that the first question is answered by the second. Question: how much soy is a healthy daily consumption? Answer: It depends on how that soy is prepared. Looking again to traditional wisdom, it is safe to say that extensive use of naturally fermented soy products as condiments is an age-old practice that has withstood the test of time. Also, it is safe to say that no traditional culture consumed soy to the exclusion of animal products. And finally, it is safe to say that no traditional culture consumed in the highly fracture, isolated component forms that saturate our market today.

Time and time again we’ve seen the disregard of food practices developed through the intuition of traditional cultures disregarded in the modern pursuit of efficiency and convenience lead rapidly to degenerative health. Primitive people, living without the benefit of technological analysis, are much more intimately connected to the effects of food on health, by default. Because of this they have developed specific practices to assure the digestibility and nourishing properties of their foods. As such, these cultures were able to utilize soy as a food only after discovering fermentation. The modern foods industry, with profitability as its primary intention, repeatedly overlooks the absolute effects of it’s practices on health. So soy consumption that mimics traditional practices of fermentation and limited consumption can be embraced by all for whom they are well tolerated. And isolated, processed, or bioengineered soy should be considered as either medicine or toxin, but to be treated with extreme care. And with this marriage of inclusion and exclusion we find the middle of the road.

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