In recent decades, soy has often been thought to be synonymous with “health food.” It is a common ingredient in many meatless and dairy-free foods; making it a popular choice for vegetarians, vegans, and the lactose intolerant. Soy is not an ingredient that is strictly limited to health foods. It is a common ingredient in all sorts of heavily processed food products, and non-food products alike. For example, soybean and soybean meal can be found in fast food items such as hamburgers and fries; soybean oil is used for cooking and frying, and soy-based emulsifiers can be found in many common candy bars and processed foods. Soy based inks are increasing in popularity, and soy can be found in many cosmetics as well. Soybean meal and hulls are often used as animal feed too. These are just a few examples, with nearly 73 million acres of US farmland dedicated to soy cultivation; it is nearly as prevalent in our food supply as corn.
With our increased soy consumption, soy allergies are on the rise as well. Soy allergies are listed among the top eight most common in the world. In many cases soy allergies begin with a reaction to soy-based infant formula, in some cases the children outgrow this allergy, in others the soy allergy persists into adulthood. Most often signs and symptoms of a soy allergy are mild, for example, hives, or itching, to moderate such as abdominal pain, and digestive troubles. In rare and extreme cases, soy allergy can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Tests can confirm whether soy is the culprit, if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of an allergy.
Even if a person is not allergic to soy, there is emerging evidence that consumption of soy is not as healthy as we once assumed, even when it comes from an organic source. Soybeans are high in phytates, which block the absorption of minerals and lead to mineral deficiencies over time. They contain potent enzyme inhibitors, which lead to protein assimilation problems. These enzymes can only be deactivated through the process of fermentation, not regular cooking. This makes fermented soy products such as miso, natto, and tempeh, some of the best choices, if you can tolerate soy. Soy foods contain phytoestrogens, which can be disruptive to the endocrine system, and have been shown to depress thyroid function. These phytoestrogens are not removed through fermentation or other processing. While soy may be safe for occasional consumption, it is not advisable to rely on it as one’s main source of protein.
The most difficult aspect of managing a soy allergy is learning to read labels and ask about ingredients. After all, there are a host of food additives that are soy-based. Thankfully, there are many alternatives to soy in all of its forms, most of which are easy to digest and have many health benefits. Below are two lists, the first includes ingredients or products that are soy-based, the second includes soy alternatives.
Emulsifiers (if unspecified)
Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein or Hydrolyzed Protein (HVP)
Isolated Soy Protein
Mono and Diglycerides
Mono Sodium Glutamates (MSG)
Natural, Organic or Artificial Flavors (if the flavor isn’t listed in brackets beside it, then it is most likely soy-based)
Soy (anything with this term included)
Soy Oil (Crisco, Pam Spray etc)
Soy Protein Concentrate
Textured Soy Flour (TSF)
Textured Soy Protein (TSP)
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
Earth Balance Soy free margarine (Not all products are soy-free)
Non-Dairy Beverage Alternatives:
Beans such as black beans, pinto beans, black eyed peas, lentils, lima beans, etc. (Best combined with grain to make complete protein.)
Miso and Tempeh can be made with any bean of your choosing, for example, chickpea miso, or tempeh from black eyed peas. “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz , and the accompanying website by the same name offer detailed recipes for making these wonderful, soy-free, fermented foods.
Eggs (If you don’t have an allergy)
Nuts/ Seeds (If you don’t have an allergy)
Green protein powders that contain algae such as spirulina and chlorella (make sure they don’t have hidden soy ingredients).
Raw Coconut Amino’s seasoning sauce
Toasted Sesame Oil
1. Fallon, Sally with Mary G. Enig Ph.D. Nourishing Traditions, Revised second edition. New Trends Publishing. Washington DC, 2001.