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Soybeans - A Friend, Foe or Frenemy?

By Edited Jun 3, 2016 1 1

Soybean Products

Nowadays, you can find soybeans in various food products. There are beverages, cooking oil, meat alternatives and supplements made from this legume. It is also used as an additive (lecithin) in several commercial foods like chocolate, chips and crackers.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that various studies about this legume have emerged. But, these studies only led to confusions. One particular reason is that these studies showed conflicting results about this food’s nutritional and health benefits. 

So, is soy good or bad for your health? Are these kinds of products a friend, foe or an enemy disguising as a friend? You will find the answer to these questions as you read further.

A Health-friendly Food from the Orient

Before its popularity skyrocketed, soybeans were a staple in most East Asian countries. In fact, its fame in the health and nutrition department started in the Orient.

A thousand years ago, this legume was initially deemed healthful. What happened a thousand years later? Why did soybean products suddenly become the center of controversies? Before we go to that topic, let us first take a look at its nutritional profile.

Soybean is a low-fat, low-calorie source of protein and fiber. It is rich in essential minerals like magnesium, potassium, selenium, phosphorus, iron and copper. Vitamin C, K and various kinds of B vitamins are also present in this legume. Lastly, this legume is also a good source of beneficial fats like omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

In addition to that, here is a list of the known health benefits of soy.

  • It lowers “bad” cholesterol levels.
  • It prevents bone loss or osteoporosis.
  • It alleviates insulin resistance or type-2 diabetes.
  • It provides cardiovascular benefits.
  • It alleviates menopausal symptoms.
  • It lowers the risks of cancer.

The Common Problems in Soybeans and the Controversies Revolving Around It

Is soy good or bad for your health? Honestly, the answer to this question can go either way. Factors like food preparation and the amount you consume will always play a crucial role in determining the result. For now, let us take a look at the common problems linked to this legume. 

A. Genetically Modified Soybeans

In today’s global production of soybeans, more than half are genetically modified. This is quite alarming. Remember, there are some health concerns when it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMO) products.

Basically, majority of these modified beans are not used to make food products for human consumption. Instead, most of these crops are ingredients for animal feeds. Again, this is a controversial topic when it comes to dairy and poultry products.

Nonetheless, you can still find non-GMO soybeans in today’s market. One way to avoid GMO products is to opt for locally produced organic beans. Through this, you can ask your local farmers about their products. 

B. Anti-nutrients and Other Troublesome Compounds


It is without doubt that soybeans have healthful substances. However, like other vegetables, it also has anti-nutrients and troublesome compounds. In fact, this legume is poisonous when raw, uncooked or untreated. This is actually one of the dangers of soy foods, making it a major concern for consumers.

1. Phytic acid and Oxalic acid

Soybeans have the highest amount of phytic acid compared to other grains and beans. This specific compound can block mineral absorption. Hence, minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and copper are inevitably eliminated instead of being absorbed.

As for oxalic acid, it can hinder calcium absorption. But, studies have shown that only minute amounts of calcium are apparently blocked.  The main concern here is kidney problems. Basically, ingesting high amounts of oxalic acid may lead to formation of kidney stones. 

Nonetheless, like other vegetables, various food preparation techniques can help reduce these anti-nutrients.

2. Goitrogen

The isoflavone contents of soybeans are beneficial in low doses. But, when consumed in large amounts, it can disrupt your normal body functions.

Isoflavone is a well-known goitrogen. As such, it can hinder iodine absorption. Hypothyroidism is the result of iodine deficiency. One solution for this dilemma is to combine iodine-rich foods with soybean products. 

3. Phytoestrogen

Both saponin and isoflavone are also considered phytoestrogens. This can either be a good or bad news. 

First, let me tell you about the good news. Isoflavone specifically genistein is evidently linked to cancer prevention. In a 1997 report issued by The American Institute for Cancer Research, they stated the following: 

"Phytoestrogens are found in high concentrations in soy beans, and have been shown in vitro to exhibit a plethora of different anti-cancer effects, including inhibiting proliferation."  

This statement is promising. However, there’s a downside. Long-term intake of high amounts of genistein will bring forth a reverse effect. Instead of preventing cancer, it creates an environment that encourages it. This is because genistein's anticarcinogenic effects will not only affect mutated or abnormal cells. It can also affect the healthy cells in our body. 

As I mentioned earlier, isoflavone is a widely known phytoestrogen. Thus, it can mimic our estrogen hormones. This may lead to a higher estrogen levels in our body. This is where most conflicting views occur.

Animal studies have linked high estrogen levels to infertility and gynecomastia in men. For women, it is apparently linked to an increase risk of hormone-dependent cancer. On the other hand, some studies also show that soy isoflavone is weaker compared to estrogen. Hence, it may not cause significant effects. Either way, when it comes to isoflavone, moderate consumption is highly recommended.

C. Processed Foods

Looking back at the soy’s history, people consume this legume as a whole food. There was no problem there. In fact, most of its positive remarks came from researches based on Asians who moderately consume its "whole" form. 

Processed Foods

The problem starts when processed soy products arrived on our grocery shelves. As you know, refined products are usually considered a prevailing foe in the health and fitness department. One primary reason is its high-calorie, low-nutrient qualities.

Remember, any healthful food that undergoes heavy processing will eventually lose its nutrients. This is inevitable. Variables like temperature, pressure and added chemicals will not only diminish or destroy nutrients. It can also lead to chemical reactions. Here’s another problem. There’s a lingering uncertainty that the new compounds formed may or may not cause harm to our body. 

Unfortunately, with today's fast-paced living, instant products have already become a natural part of our daily lives. Still, we have the power to make positive changes. This can easily be done by opting for more “whole” foods and lesser “processed” products.

D. Risk of Over Consumption

Soybean is a typical substitute for dairy or animal protein. However, consuming too much of these products is not ideal. In fact, one of the primary dangers of soy is over consumption. 

Some may argue that “it is safe to eat a lot of soy foods since it is a principal part of the East Asian diet.” But, there's a big difference.

Miso Soup

While it is true that soy foods are popular in the Orient, the East Asian diet is not chiefly based on this legume. Take tofu as an example. In East Asian cuisines, tofu is a typical ingredient in fish broth, stir-fry, soups and more. Basically, soy foods are not eaten alone or in large quantities. Instead, it is always cooked and served along with other healthful ingredients.

As Dr. Kaayla Daniel stated in her book entitled The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food  

“The soy industry's own figures show that soy consumption in China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan ranges from 9.3 to 36 grams per day. That's grams of soy food, not grams of soy protein alone.”

Today’s intake of soybean products has evolved beyond the norm. As I've mentioned earlier, soy is present in various processed foods sold in the market. Some may even eat soy-containing products without knowing it. With this scenario, over consumption will always be a possibility.

Remember, while food processing may lower soy's anti-nutrient contents, isoflavone is still present in these products. Furthermore, some food manufacturers add artificial flavorings to processed soybean products to enhance its flavor. This is actually one of the foremost dangers of soy foods. Mainly because some of these flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG) are also linked to other health risks. For this reason, it is important to read product labels. 

On that note, if you’re going to include this legume in your diet, it is strongly recommended to choose its “whole” form. You can also opt for soybean products that are minimally processed. So, what kinds of soy foods should you opt for?

Fermented Soybeans: Your Health-friendly Soy Foods

Natto - Fermented Soybeans

Before people knew how to ferment foods and beverages, soybeans are not used as a food source. It was only during the Chou dynasty that the first soybean products were introduced. Yes, these products were carefully fermented for days or even months. So, what happens when one ferments soybeans?

In my earlier post about cultured vegetables, I've written about the fermentation process and how it enhances a vegetable's nutritional and health benefits. As for soybeans, the same thing happens.

Basically, proliferation of living microorganisms is only one part of the equation. With that said, here is a list of the effects or the benefits of fermenting soybeans.

  • Fermentation improves soy’s digestibility. 
  • It increases its vitamin K and B contents.
  • It increases the antioxidant contents of soy foods.
  • It reduces or deactivates anti-nutrients like phytic acid, oxalic acid and protein inhibitors. 
  • Isoflavone is evidently transformed into a beneficial substance. In fact, the isoflavone found in fermented soy products is the primary substance linked to cancer prevention.
  • Bioavailability of nutrients is also enhanced through fermentation.
  • Fermented soy products have superior protein quality compared to its unfermented versions.

How to Prepare Natto - A Fermented Soybean Product

Natto is one of the most popular fermented soybean product sold in today's market. The video below can provide more information about natto along with some ways on how to enjoy its exotic flavor. 

Other Ways to Enjoy Soybeans

It is typically said that “eating cultured foods is an acquired taste.” This is true. Most fermented soybean products like natto and miso have an exotic taste that you’ll either hate or adore. But, this does not mean that you have to completely avoid this legume. There are other ways to cook and get the nutritional and health benefits of soy.

A. Edamame

Edamame or Green Soybeans

Unlike soybeans, edamame is soft, digestible and has a delicate nutty flavor.

Basically, edamame is the immature version of soy, hence the name "green soybeans". Because of this, it has less anti-nutrients and harmful substances. It also has more protein and sucrose compared to its matured form. Lastly, abscisic acid, a plant stress hormone is present in green soybeans. Several studies show that this plant hormone can give positive effects on our health.

Today, edamame is either sold fresh or frozen. There are various ways to eat it. You can steam it. It can also be added in salad, soup or stew recipes. In Japan, it is a typical ingredient in desserts like rice cake.

B. Soy Milk and Yogurt

Soy milk is a common alternative for cow’s milk and other dairy products. It is safe to drink this beverage occasionally. But, if you’re searching for a healthier option, choose soy yogurt. It is the fermented version of soy milk. Hence, it can offer added health benefits.

While you can still find high quality soy milk, homemade products are still your best option. Keep in mind that heavy food processing can affect its nutrient contents. Homemade products are also free of any preservatives. But, it can only last a couple of days before it spoils.

C. Sprouted Soybeans

Soybean Sprouts

Sprouted soybean is one of Korea’s traditional foods. You can eat it raw or cooked. But, because of the recent cases of bacterial contamination common in sprouts, it is best to cook it. This is highly recommended if you’re purchasing sprouted beans.

So, why eat sprouted soybeans? Soaking and sprouting can bring forth positive effects in legumes. For one, it improves soy’s digestibility. Aside from that, germination can also activate the enzyme phytase. As a result, phytic acids found in soybeans are evidently reduced when sprouted. Lastly, an increased in protein contents is also observed.  

D. Tofu

Another traditional soybean product from the Orient is tofu or bean curd. It is typically made by solidifying the proteins in soy milk. This is normally done with the use of salt coagulants like Nigari or magnesium chloride. The end product has lesser phytates and protein inhibitors. 

Although it has a bland flavor, it usually absorbs the flavor of other ingredients mixed with it. Hence, it is a great addition to soups, stews and salads. You can also opt for sprouted and fermented tofu. 

Final Thoughts

Soybean Products

Is soy good or bad for you? With all the controversies revolving around soy, some of you may try to avoid this food.  However, as presented above, not all soybean products are bad for your health.

The dangers of soy rise when over consumption occurs. This is also true for the fermented and whole forms of this legume. Even though these items are usually considered healthful, moderate consumption is strongly recommended.

If you're going to include soybean products in your diet, it is best to combine it with other healthful foods. Through this, soy foods can definitely be a friend with various benefits to offer.

Remember, the important words here are MODERATION and DIVERSITY. Diversifying your food choices is a key to good health. A balanced diet is a definite way to get your nutrient requirement. Always remember that too much of anything is detrimental to our health. 

If you like to know more about other kinds of legumes or beans, this article entitled "Beans, Beans, Good for the Heart" may give you more information. 

Making Your Own Soy Milk and Tofu

Cookbook with Soybeans as Ingredients

The Whole Soy Cookbook, 175 delicious, nutritious, easy-to-prepare Recipes featuring tofu, tempeh, and various forms of nature's healthiest Bean
Amazon Price: $16.95 $0.90 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 3, 2016)
Soy foods can blend well with various ingredients. If you're looking for some recipes or ideas on how to include soybean products in your diet, this cookbook may help you.


Feb 7, 2016 11:23pm
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  3. Jack Norris, RD "Soy: What's the Harm?." Vegan Health. 23/08/2015 <Web >
  4. Jack Norris, RD "Soy: What's the Harm?." Vegan Health. 23/08/2015 <Web >
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  6. Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD "The Whole Soy Story ." American Nutrition Association. 23/08/2015 <Web >
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