Debating soy protein's status as friend or foe

The debate continues: is or isn't soy good for our bodies? Studies have conflicting results in regards to soy's effects, yet the protein that was once part of American counter-culture is becoming increasingly popular. Linguistics major Sugiko Nazel eats soy at least twice a week in the form of tofu or flavored, soy-based drinks. "I think lots of soy products are tasty, having grown up with the Asian side of my family where the exposure to soy is greater." But even Nazel doesn't have complete understanding about what soy does to the body. "On the news a while back, I heard it lowers men's sperm count if they consume too much," says Nazel.

Julie Miller, M.A., registered dietician and certified diabetes educator says that soy may also have detrimental effects on women. "I would recommend eating soy in moderation because research is conflicting," she says. "There is research that soy is a cancer fighter, but there is also research that says soy causes cell proliferation in breast tissue."

Registered dietician and SMC professor of nutrition, Dona Richwine, says that soy is "great health-wise," rich in benefits. "Of all the plant foods it's considered to have the highest biological value."

Biological value is determined by how readily a protein is absorbed into the body, as well as the amount of essential amino acids the protein contains. Although no plant food contains all amino acids, soy has the most. "On a scale of 100, soybean protein has a biological value of 96. All animal products have 100," says Richwine.

If soy has a biological value of 96, and animal foods have a biological value of 100, how can eating soy instead of meat be beneficial? "The difference between soy and animal foods is the fat content. Soy is very low fat; any fat it would have is unsaturated and healthy," says Richwine. Soy also lacks cholesterol, which is especially beneficial to heart health.

Richwine explains that soy contains phytochemicals, chemical compounds found in plants that may be beneficial in preventing disease. Soy contains isoflavones, phenolic acids and phytoestrogens, and while all of these phytochemicals may be beneficial in reducing risk for cancer and heart disease, phytoestrogens mimic estrogen. This may be where the sperm count theory comes from. Although excess estrogen won't lower sperm count, estrogen does promote cell growth. It is recommended that those who have had breast cancer not consume excess amounts of phytoestrogen. If a person's body has surplus (phyto)estrogen accompanying cancer cells, there is an increased chance of cancer cell growth.

Harvard scientists conducted a study and found that men who consumed the highest levels of soy had the lowest sperm count, though they still fell within a healthy range for fertility and had good quality sperm. The June 2009 issue of "Harvard's Men Health Watch," says that "unless fertility is a worry, men have no reason to bid ‘soyanara' to soy."

However, excessive consumption of soy by men may not even be a pertinent issue around SMC. Jasmine Temelador, sociocultural anthropology major and employee at the TCBY/coffee shop on campus, notes that "women definitely outweigh the men when it comes to [ordering] soy milk [in a beverage]."

So can we eat too much soy? "For a normal, healthy person, eat as much soy as you want," says Richwine. That leaves much to the imagination in regards to quantity, and Miller says that "moderation is a good target, you shouldn't have your only source of protein be soy." Rice, beans, nuts and quinoa are also good options, she says.

Yonatan Mallinger, SMC film student and a vegan of almost seven years, eats a lot of soy. Though it is a vital part of his diet, he doesn't quite approve of the environmental implications. "The soy industry is owned mainly by the meat industry, ironically," says Mallinger." They cut down rainforests to grow soy to feed cattle, so the meat industry is even more harmful for the environment because it takes more land."

"There are claims that say everyone who eats tofu is cutting down rainforests, but that's a big fat lie," says Mallinger. "We're just eating leftovers [from the meat industry] and cows eat a lot more soy than people. One cow would eat a lot more soy than one vegan."

No one can be sure how much of the rainforest is being illegally destroyed. In 2006, however, Greenpeace discovered that Amazon rainforests were destroyed to grow soy. This soy was subsequently sold to KFC and McDonald's chains, where it was used as feed for the chickens served in their European restaurants.

There you have it: soy won't interfere with a male's development, nor will it lower his sperm count; like anything in life, it is suggested that one consume soy in moderation; women who have had breast cancer should regulate their soy intake and even though growing soy has the potential to hurt our environment, it seems that overall the soy bean is a nutritious protein source that is low in fat and cholesterol-free. So, soy burger anyone?