Updated: May 3
The war on soy is real. There are practitioners out there recommending a total and permanent ban on all soy products. But is this really necessary? Is soy safe, or should soy be tossed to the growing pile of foods we are to exclude from our children’s diets?
Recently I was chatting with a friend about her son’s gut health, she was hoping to get some suggestions regarding foods that could improve his microbiome. I mentioned miso - she was not impressed. Soy is a big no-no for autism she said, seemingly disgusted that I would suggest something so damaging!
So this got me thinking. Should there be a war on soy? The Gluten Free, Casein Free, Soy Free (GFCFSF) diet is considered to be the ‘gold standard’ diet for autism by many… and it certainly has its place and is one that I recommend as an elimination diet. I do agree that most soy products don’t have a place in a child’s diet – BUT – should all soy be treated equally? No, not in my opinion.
Now – let’s be clear… there are definitely times when I agree that a strict soy-free diet is essential:
You are allergic to soy
Symptoms return when reintroducing soy (post an elimination diet).
But what about tofu? Health food, right? And soy sauce? Surely a splash on a sushi hand roll couldn’t do your child harm??? It’s a good protein source, right? And what about that soy lecithin that’s added to your favourite chocolate bar… harmless, right??
So which soy products are in or out?
Firstly, a bit about the bean… soybeans or soya beans are a species of legume native to East Asia. Common soybean products include edamame (immature soybeans, boiled and salted) soy milk, soy sauce, miso, tamari, tofu, soy meal, soy flour, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tempeh, natto, soy lecithin and soybean oil.
Say NO to GMO. – why bad?
Pesticides aren’t food. GMO soy is insect and herbicide resistant – which is good for the crop, but not for your gut. Most soy is GMO, so always check the label and choose non-GMO.
TOFU – Avoid – even when organic and non-GMO.
Confession: I actually like tofu. And I do eat it occasionally. When I lived in China I ate it every day. My favourite thing was to buy firm tofu and pumpkin, steam them together and just eat with a few coriander sprigs. Totally doesn’t sound lovely now but it was a very common lunch for me back then (in 2005). It’s not something I would eat regularly now… it’s not that I think tofu is poison – just that I no longer consider it to be ‘healthy’.
SOY MILK – Avoid – even when organic and non-GMO
SOY SAUCE - Avoid – even when organic and non-GMO
Soy sauce is fermented soy; however, it has been processed with wheat, and going wheat free is something I recommend to a large percentage of my clients. Soy sauce is also high in salt. Tamari is very similar to soy sauce – a little thicker, and a little lower salt content. To my palette I can hardly tell them apart. Tamari has less salt and is usually gluten free (always check the label).
If your little person loves soy sauce, this switch is a no brainer to me. Choose Tamari. If you’re wanting to avoid soy altogether here, another great swap is coconut aminos. Yum! Expensive but delicious (sweeter than tamari but not coconut-ty).
SOY LECITHIN (Leh-Suh-thn) – Avoid (almost everyone). If you do go there, always choose organic Non-GMO.
Okay, this stuff gives me headaches… and it’s in so many of my favourite things... chocolate for example. Most commercial chocolate has soy lecithin in it.
For soy lecithin, the biggest concern is the way that it’s produced. A chemical solvent is used to extract the oil from the soybean to produce soy lecithin. Also, unless listed as Non-GMO soy lecithin, then it is very likely GMO. Soy lecithin is therefore likely to be contaminated with residual pesticides.
In one study, soy lecithin was shown to be strongly estrogenic - more about this topic later. Another study (in mice) indicated that emulsifiers like soy lecithin lowered gut microbiome, and caused gut inflammation. Healing the gut is a big part of the journey that I take my clients on. Although the risk may seem small (the amount of soy lecithin in that chocolate bar is probably minuscule) I still recommend avoiding, particularly if detox pathways are impaired or gut damaged. Or if you get terrible headaches like me!
Soybean Oil – Exclude
Choose cold-pressed oils. Soybean oil is not cold pressed. To extract the oil, the soybean is heated, and a chemical solvent is then used to extract the oil. It is also high in polyunsaturated fat which is prone to oxidization. Hydrogenated soybean oil does have a better fatty acid profile, however I recommend excluding all hydrogenated oils.
But why the war? Is soy really that bad?? Let’s break it down…
Yep sorry – this is true. The raw soybean has anti-trypsin activity. Trypsin is an important enzyme (created in your pancreas) that is used to breakdown proteins. Thankfully, the anti-trypsin activity is reduced during processing of the soybean however not enough to remove concern, particularly where gut issues are present.
Soybeans also contain phytic acid which binds to minerals preventing mineral absorption (especially zinc, calcium, and magnesium). Phyates aren’t all bad though, and have been found to lower cholesterol. If high cholesterol is not a concern for your family, then I suggest avoiding.
Don’t worry, your little boy won’t grow boobs eating a small serve of tofu! Soy is estrogenic – but at what level would be sufficient to impact hormones? Significantly more than a glass of soy milk or a serve of sweet and sour tofu!
Phytoestrogens imitate estrogen in the body, and therefore have the potential to disrupt normal hormone function. Phytoestrogens are present in other plant based foods such as grains, nuts, seeds and fruit – however soybeans are a rich source. For this reason, I recommend avoiding most soy products for children.
For the women reading this blog, adding phytoestrogens to you own diet during perimenopause or menopause can improve symptoms like hot flushes and also improve mood and energy levels associated with PMS. Phytoestrogens are also preventative against osteoporosis. I don’t feel at all guilty about the delicious salt and pepper tofu entrée I had for lunch recently. It was amazing by the way!
So which soy products can my child eat?
And the winner is… Fermented soy!! Only eat organic non-GMO.
Fermentation is soy’s kryptonite. Fermentation makes the nutrients in the soybean more bioavailable by breaking down enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid.
Miso and Tamari are fermented and highly nutritious forms of soy… beneficial to gut health.
Limit to no more than 2 grams per day due to salt content. I’m by no means advocating for this amount – all I’m saying is a gram of miso spread on a cracker as a substitute for vegemite (which is unhealthy) is a good (and generally safe) swap! Miso can also be used as a cooking stock substitute. Be aware that miso is often produced with brown rice, so not suitable for children that can’t tolerate grains.
And if you’re still not convinced miso is safe – please still ditch the vegemite!
What else? Tempeh and Natto are also fermented soy, so ok in my book. Natto has a very strong and distinct flavour, I myself am not a fan and I’m yet to meet a kid who is ☺
So, Mr Soybean, there will be no war from this nutritionist. I’ll continue adding fermented soy products to my family’s healthy and well balanced diet, until enough evidence passes my desk to reconsider my approach.
Always check with your child’s health care practitioner before implementing changes to their diet.
What do you think? Will you be introducing miso and/or tamari into your child's diet? Do you think soy is safe to eat? Share your experience and insights in the comment box below.
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