The Story of Soy- It’s Just a Bean!
With the release of the documentary ‘The Game Changers’, various myths about protein deficiency and veganism have been put to rest to some degree. Many more such health-based documentaries like ‘Forks Over Knives’ and ‘What The Health’ have shown how a 100% plant-based diet which includes soy products can lead to lowering of cardiovascular diseases, insulin resistance and osteoporosis.
Yet Soy keeps running into trouble with several myths still existing around its consumption; even though all Soy is, is just a tiny harmless bean that can be avoided if someone doesn’t like it!
In this blog, we’ll see the journey of Soy in India, understand how it developed such a bad reputation, and finally bust the myths around this innocent little bean (seriously, it’s just like any other bean out there!)
India and Soy (Soya)
Just like tea, coffee, Lantana and several other plants, Soy isn’t native to India. It is thought to have been introduced in South Asia by the Dutch in the 1600s, but its cultivation in India was restricted to a few pockets in the northern and northeastern hills and the central plains. With the establishment of the British Rule in India, intensive research on soy and its dietary use began.
The Indian diet has always been thought of as a low- protein one, and soy was being looked at as a cost-effective, high protein source to tackle this “issue”. Some of the most respected nutritionists of that time endorsed the use of soy milk for infants to up their protein intake, one such person was Sir Robert McCarrison, Director of the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor. The positive effects of Soy, with its low production cost, came as a blessing for various social schemes revolving around feeding orphans and the underprivileged.
Sasanka S De is said to be the Indian pioneer of soy products, he set up a soy milk production facility in Calcutta, the first in the region. During the Bengal famine in 1943, he was successfully able to provide a feed from his soy milk plant to the homeless and survivors with good nutrition results.
Research on soy continued post-independence with commercial use picking pace in the 1960s. In the 1970s it was found that only 12% of the protein in the Indian diet was from animals, rest was mainly plant-based. Marketing of soy products was given impetus to make them reach the target audience. Various soy products were developed by this time: soy milk, baby weaning foods, desserts, tofu and Nutri nuggets were the popular ones. The Government of India also launched various schemes to increase the utilisation of Soy, the Oilseed Production Thrust Project of 1987 was one such project. Today, in India 90% of the soy crop is used for oil extraction, Soya oil being the major domestic demand in the country. The residue crop, rich in protein is prepared as oil cakes and oil meals, which is then exported due to a lack of demand for such feed in the domestic market.
In India, soy is mainly grown in 7 states with Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra having the highest yields. In 2019 a total land area of 107.6 lakh hectare was under soy cultivation with a yield of 93 lakh metric tonne. None of the soy used in India is of the Genetically Modified (GM) variety.
The threat to the Dairy and Meat Industry
If soy has historically been used to bridge the nutritional gap between the rich and poor, how did it come to have such a bad rap? We’re sure you won’t be surprised by the answer.
A Soy Alert Campaign was started by The Weston A. Price Foundation in the early 2000s. This campaign was based on research funded by the animal- farming industry, claiming soy to have several negative health effects. Dr Price, who started this campaign was a lobbyist for the animal farming industry. The campaign research claims that saturated animal fat is essential for good health and the cholesterol found in such foods has no link to cardiovascular disease and cancer, it goes on to claim that meat eaters live longer than vegetarians. This is possibly the source of all major myths that surround soy consumption today, from being a poor source of protein to having estrogen that can cause breast cancer.
This is akin to the cigarette industry denying any link between smoking and lung cancer. Thankfully, enough research has been done with randomised double-blind control tests to debunk these claims.
Let the Myth Busting Begin!
Myth #1 Soy is not a complete protein
Fact: One cup (172g) of cooked Soybean has 28.6g of protein with all 9 essential amino acids available in good quantities, making Soy not just a good source of protein, but a wholesome source of protein! While a glass of milk has 8g of protein, Soy milk has 7g and without the cholesterol and trans- fats that are found in dairy milk.
In addition to this, soy is rich in Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Phosphorus, Zinc, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Omegas 3 and 6, and Fiber.
Fun Fact: Only plants and microorganisms can synthesise all the 9 essential amino acids that our bodies need. To say that plant food is incomplete nutrition is the biggest lie, in fact, all nutrition first begins from plants and microbes, making it obvious that we do not need to eat meat to get “proper” nutrition.
Myth #2 Soy has estrogen which can increase the risk of breast cancer
Fact: Soy DOES NOT contain estrogen, which is a mammalian hormone readily found in dairy products. Soy does have Phytoestrogens which have an anti-estrogenic effect, blocking estrogen receptors and actually reducing the amount of estrogen used by our bodies. Isoflavone is one such type of phytoestrogen, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant helping in reducing the risk of breast cancer and NOT increasing it. Soybeans are the richest source of Isoflavones in the human diet.
But something that CAN cause breast cancer is the continued consumption of dairy milk.
Women who consume soy regularly are shown to have a 30% reduced risk of endometrial cancer, they also cut their risk of uterine cancer by half!
It doesn’t just help fight cancer, consumption of 2 glasses of soy milk per day has been shown to increase bone mineral density and reduce the risk of fractures.
Myth #3 The estrogen in soy can cause feminisation in men
Fact: As discussed, Soy contains Pythoestrogens which work antagonistically to estrogen in the body. No study so far has found any “enlarged breast” symptoms in men due to regular consumption of soy foods. For a man to see any negative effects of Soy on his health, one will need to consume at least 30 cups of soybeans a day, we’re sure nobody would want to do that!
In fact, studies have shown that there is up to 70% reduction in the risk of developing Prostate Cancer for men who consume soy foods regularly, while men who consume dairy products instead (which does actually contain 14.45 ng/ml of Estrone (a type of estrogen)) increase their risk of getting prostate cancer by SIX TIMES!
So the next time someone calls you a “Soy Boy”, you can proudly claim to be a happy, healthy and cancer-free one!
Myth #4 Soy phytoestrogens inhibit thyroid function
Fact: Unless one is taking high doses (16mg and above) of isolated phytoestrogens from soy as pills, no negative effects have been observed in people with hypothyroidism from consumption of soy foods. As we do not naturally consume such isolated products of soy, it poses no risk in altering the thyroid function. Even in clinical trials where people were given high doses of isolated phytoestrogen only 6 out of 60 women showed any changes in thyroid function, the rest were observed to have lower insulin resistance, inflammation and blood pressure, talk about having positive side effects!
Myth #5 Soy-based baby food can inhibit growth and development
Fact: Again, no research so far has found any negative correlation between soy-based baby formulas and developmental issues in infants. All these myths arise from one single major myth that phytoestrogens in soy mimic estrogen in mammals, which has been busted pretty convincingly this far.
Myth #6 Soy products are made from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
Fact: In the US, 80% of all food grown is of the GMO variety. In the case of soy, 93% of the produce of GM soy is grown as cattle and poultry feed. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claims that the products used for the production of soy milk, tofu, tempeh and textured proteins are of the Non- GMO or Organic variety (a good reason to always check food labels).
In India the use of GMO crops for food is banned, the only GM crop currently in use is the Bt Cotton. So the consumption of soy products here does not cause health or environmental issues.
Myth #7 Production of Soy degrades the environment
Fact: 93% of all Soy crop in the US is fed to animals, the same soy that results in clearing of the Amazon rainforest. One would question here, is Soy at fault or it is our policies and priorities? 822 million people went hungry in 2019 as per a Global Hunger Index report, while the food that could solve this problem was being fed to 987 million livestock on the planet. The only reason Soy does cause environmental degradation is due to its unnecessary use in the animal farming industry, a problem which can be easily solved if the crop is fed directly to humans instead.
It is important to mention here that animal agriculture is currently the leading cause of pollution on the planet, and soy production for this purpose is a part of this percentage.
The livestock industry contributes 18% to the global warming effect– higher than that of the entire transport industry combined and 68% of the total ammonia emissions in the world! Ammonia is a constituent of Acid Rain and causes severe degradation of the environment, for example, ocean acidification. Therefore, the animal farming industry has an enormous Domino Effect on the health of our environment.
Relax! Take a deep breath and understand just one basic fact to bust all present and future myths when it comes to Soy– it is just a bean! Like kidney beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, black beans, chickpeas, there are about 40,000 varieties of beans and Soy is just one of them. It has been a staple diet for East Asians for millennia without any adverse effects on health.
Who shouldn’t eat soy? Only people who are allergic to it. Studies show that only one in 2000 people are allergic to soy, that is 40 times less than the people allergic to dairy and 10 times less than people with other dietary allergies like shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, etc.
Split between being the popular child of the vegan community and the problematic neighbour of the dairy and meat industry, Soy holds it’s a special place as the pioneer of the alternatives industry due to its versatility. The myths will slowly fade out with high-quality peer-reviewed research being published in favour of plant proteins every year. While Soy started the problems for the meat and dairy industry, today, with the alternatives industry being 2.2 billion dollar big and growing, these industries have far more to worry about than just Soy.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy a nice cup of soy milk latte or some spicy lemon soy bean stir fry, you won’t drop dead, Promise!
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