Update on the soy controversy
by Dixie Mills, MD
We’ve wondered for a long time why there are still people who question the
safety of soy foods and supplements. We’ve used soy at the clinic for 10 years
to help relieve menopausal symptoms, and we’ve reviewed all of the myths about
it — that soy causes breast cancer, interferes with tamoxifen or the digestion
of protein, causes developmental delays in infants fed soy formula, and many others.
In our experience, and in countless studies we’ve looked at, we’ve found
nothing to support these myths.
Which only makes sense, since soy has been an important part of Asian diets for
thousands of years and continues to be a popular food choice. Countless forms of
soy foods and supplements available are everywhere — from soy bars, shakes,
tofu, and milk sold in the grocery store to more exotic foods like sushi and edamame
(young, natural soybeans boiled and served whole) — and there is just no reason
to believe that any of these foods are harmful. And yet, I keep hearing from women
that they, their friends, or their partners are worried about the safety of soy.
It’s absolutely true that soy products are not for everyone — there
are some women who are allergic
or sensitive to soy. Other women have digestive or thyroid
problems that need to be addressed before eating soy is a good idea.
But I decided to research why soy has been fingered as a “dangerous”
food, and why some of these anti-soy voices are so angry, if not downright frightened,
about a little green bean.
Given that soy is eaten by millions of people around the world every day, it’s
puzzling that some people regard soy so negatively. While I’m not sure that
we’ve found all the answers, we here at Women to Women have looked into whether
there is any scientific merit to the claims of those who demonize soy, and what
we’ve found only confirms our understanding that soy is a healthy food with
many benefits for women. So let’s talk about who is campaigning so aggressively
against soy, and take a look at the science behind this issue.
Who is the voice against soy?
There is just a huge amount of information and misinformation floating
around on the internet about the supposed dangers of soy. The loudest anti-soy voices
are coming mostly from a close-knit group associated with promoting the nutritional
agenda of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). Sally Fallon, Kaayla T. Daniel,
Mary Enig, Julia Ross and Joseph Mercola are all members of the board at WAPF, or
The WAPF was founded by the early 20th century dentist Dr. Weston Price, who traveled
around the world to research the diets of populations who enjoyed the greatest longevity.
Today the foundation promotes a nutrition agenda based solely on “nutrient-dense
whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.”
The WAPF agrees with many of the same ideas we have about the benefits of whole,
organic foods produced without harmful chemicals and additives. But their main principles
disregard the fact that some of the longest-lived peoples in the world enjoy a diet
that is rich in plant proteins — not the least of which includes soy. And
it is puzzling that they single out the soybean as harmful when it is a staple in
so many healthful foods from around the world and has been shown to have health
benefits from many years of ongoing research.
What are their claims about soy?
The internet is a marvelous invention, but just because anyone’s voice can
be heard nowadays doesn’t mean that what’s being said is true —
or worse, that it hasn’t been taken out of context. And some of the claims
the shrillest voices are making against soy really are outrageous and frightening.
Here are just a few:
- Soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the potential to cause
infertility and to promote breast cancer in adult women.
- Megadoses of phytoestrogens in soy formula have been implicated in the current
trend toward increasingly premature sexual development in girls and delayed or retarded
sexual development in boys.
- Women with the highest levels of estrogen in their blood [have] the lowest levels
of cognitive function.
This kind of “medicalese” is a problem because it almost sounds like
real science — enough so that others on the internet cite this website as
a source for publishing some truly strange and ridiculous headlines of their own:
Soy reduces penis size; or Tofu shrinks brains; or Soy is making
kids “gay.” It gets almost comical as the list goes on.
It’s no wonder so many women are uncertain about the safety of soy —
but the good news is that there is just no real evidence behind these extreme
claims. At Women to Women, we have examined hundreds of studies and reviews on soy
from the leading peer-reviewed research journals around the world. Everything we
know so far about soy points to the many positive health benefits of soy products,
or demonstrates inconclusive results. So I was interested to learn where these detractors
were getting their information from, and what I found was quite surprising.
Faulty science and the campaign against soy
One of the most important lessons in science and statistics for us to understand
is that just because two factors seem related, does not mean one caused the other.
Another is that we have to carefully examine how someone reaches their
conclusions, because faulty reasoning leads to incorrect answers. So let’s
look at the reasoning of the people who consider soy unhealthy and see how it stacks
Many of the most strident anti-soy groups list page after page of resources in support
of their claims. To the untrained eye, it might appear as though there is scientific
substantiation against soy. But more often than not, they are misrepresenting the
research findings. For example, I found that the WAPF listed articles or reports
(not necessarily scientific studies) by year, out of context, without listing any
other articles that came out that year, making it seem as though that one study
was “the truth” for that year.
Also, many of the studies on soy showing ambiguous results have been conducted on
non-human subjects — usually rats or other rodents. In much the same way dogs
can’t tolerate chocolate, rodents and humans can’t always digest the
same foods or substances in the same ways. There are enough similarities that we
can learn a lot by experiments in rats, but enough differences that it’s important
to know up front when rats, not humans, are the test subjects. Sometimes studies
in animals give us the only information we have, but we need to be cautious about
drawing conclusions from studies based on animal models. From there, the next step
is to design a study to see whether the findings apply to humans as well. The WAPF
doesn’t say that the studies were actually done on rats when they
discuss the findings — perhaps because doing so might make their claims seem
less believable, without the same results being seen in people.
Here’s another kind of “sleight of hand” explanation the WAPF
gives on their website. A study published in 1997 in the journal Pediatrics
suggested that girls in the US are entering puberty at an earlier age than in the
past, and here’s what the WAPF concluded:
(WAPF) Our Comment: The widespread use of soy-based formula, beginning
in the 1970’s, is a likely explanation for the increase in early maturation
The study indeed came from Pediatrics, published in 1997 — but nowhere
in the article’s content or summary do the researchers ever link their findings
to soy products. Here is how the authors themselves worded their conclusion:
Conclusions. These data suggest that girls seen in a sample of pediatric
practices from across the United States are developing pubertal characteristics
at younger ages than currently used norms. Practitioners may need to revise their
criteria for referral of girls with precocious puberty, with attention to racial
The fact that more African-American girls were maturing earlier than in the past
was one of the researchers’ points, in the context that precocious puberty
creates social and psychological concerns. But because African-Americans in general
have been shown to be more lactose-intolerant, the WAPF leapt to the conclusion
that soy must be the culprit without looking at the facts. In statistics,
this is called a fallacy, and I could not find any literature to date that
supports this idea. In fact, nearly all infant formulas, both cow milk and soy-based,
contain corn syrup or sucrose, providing calories that might contribute to obesity
— which in girls can lead to early puberty. Unfortunately, this kind of “magical”
guesswork can be found all over the internet when it comes to soy — and without
good science, many are resorting unnecessarily to scare tactics.
The best thing we all can do is adopt a considered approach to the shouting match
about soy. For whatever personal, political or economic reasons, there are people
out to make misleading, confusing, and downright scary statements about soy —
but a wild guess is just not the same thing as a sound conclusion. We can counterbalance
the loud, alarmist, but scientifically thin voices against soy with a mass of positive
research data that speaks volumes about soy’s safety — not to mention
the fact that thousands, if not millions, of people consume soy all the time with
no ill effects!
So let’s take the science at face value. While we know that science doesn’t
always get it right, there is a wealth of research that shows that when eaten in
small amounts every day, soy can be an extremely healthy, low-fat, body-beneficial
food that gives you lots of protein without a lot of harmful side effects. In other
words, the good far outweighs the remote possibility of bad.
But just so you can enjoy soy without worry, there are things you may want to know
about how best to include soy in
your diet, considering both health benefits and concerns.
The heart of the soy controversy — soy isoflavones
Soybeans and many other legumes contain compounds called “isoflavones”,
and it is these compounds that many in the anti-soy camp point to as the main “danger”
of soy. They argue that because isoflavones are phytoestrogens —
that is, their molecules share similarities with the estradiol molecule,
the major estrogen hormone in human beings — consuming soy products could
promote the growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers in women.
Faults in the argument against soy:
- BIAS: Using only research that supports one point of view while ignoring studies
that contradict it.
- OVERGENERALIZATION: Assuming that the results of a small number of limited studies
is directly applicable to all human beings.
- LEAPS OF LOGIC: Drawing conclusions unrelated to the goals or methods of particular
- FALLACY: Making assumptions about the relationship between two pieces of information
without testing that relationship (correlation does not equal causation).
Phytoestrogens do have the ability to interact with estrogen receptors in our bodies,
where they can evoke similar types of responses that the hormone causes or alternatively,
block those effects. But many people don’t realize that the intensity of an
estrogen receptor’s bond with isoflavones is much, much weaker (a
thousand times or so) than estradiol’s. The duration of the response may also
be different and, unlike synthetic estrogens, phytoestrogens do not accumulate in
the body but pass through in a matter of hours. Isoflavones also function as antioxidants,
counteracting free radicals in our tissues, which may be why some research shows
they can protect against cancer.
We explain this in much more detail in our article on
phytotherapy, but the bottom line is that soy isoflavones are not
the same as our own estrogen, so eating soy does not cause us to have more estrogen
in our bodies. Even more good news is that in many of the studies on soy isoflavones
that look at soy isoflavone intake and cancers, cardiovascular risks, brain dysfunction,
osteoporosis, or menopausal symptoms, researchers found either favorable, promising,
or else inconclusive effects. In other words, at minimum, soy isoflavones show no
And there are many possible explanations for why results can be “inconclusive,”
including study design and limitations. Every woman’s body is unique; therefore,
how bioavailable phytoestrogens become in our bodies after we eat them
depends on many variables: our individual genetic make-up, our digestion and metabolism,
what else we eat — even our native gut flora. All of these influence our ability
to reap health benefits from soy isoflavones. Also, it’s important to remember
that these studies do not take into account what else is going on in a subject’s
life, and what other lifestyle changes she might be experiencing (or may need to
At the clinic, we recommend soy as a natural, therapeutic treatment to help women
with many aspects of their health, including hormonal balance, because so many of
our patients find it helpful. We’ve seen years of case studies and research
that suggests that adding soy to the diet — or appropriate dosages of isoflavones
— can sometimes help menopausal symptoms, although not everyone experiences
uniform relief (see our page on soy
for menopausal symptoms for more information).
While there are no one-size-fits-all treatments for any problem, what I can say
about the safety of soy is that scientists from several countries recently examined
more than 200 isoflavone studies and concluded that “the current literature
supports the safety of isoflavones as typically consumed in diets based on soy or
containing soy products.”
I think the key piece that women can walk away with is the word “typically.”
Because how much soy isoflavones we eat — and in what form — matters
when thinking about how to best include soy into our diets.
Whole bean vs. germ — go for the way it’s found in
At Women to Women, we encourage our patients to consume soy as close to whole form
as possible. This is because the greatest benefits of eating soy come from following
an isoflavone ratio close to that found in the whole soybean, which is similar to
the ratio found in healthy Asian diets. As long as whatever soy products you eat
are made from whole soy, you’re getting soy as Nature intended.
But there is a difference between consuming the whole bean and taking supplements
made from the germ only. Take a look at our “soybean” to see the difference
in isoflavone ratios:
Of the many isoflavones that occur naturally in plants, genistein, daidzein, and
glycitein are the primary ones found in soybeans. As you can see above, soybeans
typically include at about 50% genistein, 40% daidzein, and up to 10% glycitein
forms. In contrast, soy germ isoflavone products typically contain only
20% genistein, 40% daidzein, and 40% glycitein.
What do all of these numbers mean?
Well, if a product lists 100 milligrams of isoflavones, you don’t really know
what the ratio of those isoflavones is unless the manufacturer lists the ratios
for you. Since genistein has the most noted beneficial effects in humans, and whole
soybean is much higher in genistein than the soy germ, eating soy products or supplements
that are made from the whole bean gives you more of the therapeutic effects that
we see in the clinic.
How much soy is healthy?
We don’t really know yet whether any particular soy isolates taken by themselves
are as safe as or effective as whole soy foods, but what we do know is that we can
get the most benefits when we consume small amounts of isoflavone-rich foods throughout
the day, as part of a regular, lifelong eating habit.
Another key to separating the facts from the misleading information is to look at
isoflavone dosage. Studies often cited by soy critics use isolated compounds containing
amounts of isoflavones that far exceed what a person would normally eat.
Soy experts analyzing populations in major soy-consuming countries report isoflavones
intakes varying between approximately 25–80 milligrams of isoflavones per day. Studies
also show intake at the upper end of that range to be both safe and highest in therapeutic
value. Again, let’s not forget that Asian cultures have not only been enjoying
soybeans in their diet for thousands of years, but likewise they enjoy longer lifespans,
less heart disease, and lower rates of obesity and cancer.
But just as with any other food, it’s best to make soy one of a variety of
healthy choices rather than making it the major focus of your diet — especially
if you’re concerned about your breast health or your thyroid.
Addressing your health concerns and soy
- Breast health
As a breast surgeon, I’m frequently asked about soy’s estrogenic qualities,
and whether phytoestrogens are helpful or detrimental for prevention or treatment
of breast cancer. Patients also want to use alternatives to hormone replacement
and are curious about soy products, foods, supplements, isolates and phytoestrogens,
but are deeply concerned about the safety of soy and breast health.
After years of research, we know that the soy isoflavones
genistein and daidzein have a very weak estrogen-like effect, but unlike
real estrogens, they do not allow cells to proliferate. As mentioned above, soy
isoflavones can weakly bond with estrogen receptors on a cell, making the cell resistant
to the more reactive hormonal form of estrogen. For women, this blockade may prevent
certain cell processes from turning on, which can stimulate it to grow or possibly
mutate. The lower rate of breast cancer in Asian societies that eat a lot of soy
is often quoted in support of this concept.
But given so many genetic, lifestyle, and dietary factors (Asian women begin eating
a regular soy diet much sooner, with more consistency, and they also include more
omega-3’s in their diets), there is not enough evidence yet to support eating
soy as a cure for breast health in non-Asian women.
- Soy and tamoxifen
Some doctors and healthcare practitioners have long recommended that women with
breast cancer and anyone at high risk for it avoid soy, because of genistein’s
weak estrogenic effects on breast cells. Studies in mice show that genistein may
actually help override cancer cells’ resistance to tamoxifen, which suggests
it might be useful in combination with this drug or other types of chemotherapy
to prevent recurrence. But researchers also recognize that the links between genistein
and tamoxifen therapy warrant further examination in humans.
Studies in humans have shown that in Asian women, “there was no evidence of
soy intake adversely affecting levels of tamoxifen... [Yet] age, menopausal status,
BMI, and the use of hypertensive medications significantly influenced circulating
levels of tamoxifen.” Without definitive science either way, it’s impossible
to provide a one-size-fits-all answer for women, but recommendations to avoid soy
foods are not based on any clinical evidence to support this advice. In fact, several
FDA-approved clinical trials are currently going on with breast cancer patients
- Thyroid concerns
It is true that if someone has a hidden thyroid problem, eating soy regularly can
uncover it. That doesn’t mean soy caused the problem, only that certain properties
of soy made the problem more obvious — and that’s a good thing, because
it helps you to address the problem!
When soy exposes a thyroid deficiency, one possibility is that you have not been
getting enough iodine. For a healthy, iodine-replete individual, soy is very beneficial,
but if you do have a thyroid problem and you consume large quantities of soy without
first looking into your iodine status, there is a remote risk of developing a goiter.
Ensuring that your iodine levels are adequate, and learning how to balance your
body’s needs adequately, will eliminate this risk.
So what do I tell my patients who are eager to try, or continue eating, soy in the
face of breast cancer? My best recommendation is this: if they have been eating
soy regularly in their diet, it is safe to continue. However, I advise moderation.
My bottom line is that there are still many things we don’t know about how
breast cancer behaves in individual women, so women should be able to have frank
conversations with their healthcare professionals if they have any concerns
about including soy in their diet. And when it comes to your thyroid health, if
you have a personal or family history of thyroid disorders, the same holds true:
having open discussions with your physician about your concerns, and using soy products
in moderation, is always a wise choice.
Enjoying soy the right way
We feel very excited about what we’ve uncovered. Soy is good for us! This
is great news! While soy itself is innocent, however, there’s no question
that it has become a political issue. Some will probably continue to revile it as
“poison,” while others will continue to sing its praises as the “miracle
food.” Neither extreme is the right approach. We really don’t need to
build a mythology around it: a soybean is just a soybean. There are some people
who love the flavor of soymilks or yoghurts over dairy, and there are others who
prefer the taste of cow’s milk. But if you’re still a little uncertain
about eating soy, here are a few easy rules-of-thumb to follow:
- Try to include soy regularly in your diet; averaging 25–50 mg soy isoflavones per
day will give you the basic benefits.
- If you are using soy for menopausal
symptoms, target a higher initial therapeutic dose of 80–100 mg soy isoflavones
per day for best results.
- Choose whole food products (like tofu or edamame) or supplements made from whole
- Make sure your soybeans are from a reliable, quality source — choose soy products
that contain no GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) and look for organic
foods whenever possible.
- If you have thyroid concerns, breast health issues, allergies, or problems with
digestibility, speak with your healthcare practitioner before eating large quantities
- See our article on the nutritional
benefits of soy for more information about healthy ways to use soy.
At Women to Women, we believe that knowledge is power, and where that knowledge
comes from is just as important as the source of the foods we eat. Finding reliable
sources that aren’t one-sided is the best way to get the big picture, especially
when it comes to issues that are so politicized. So after reading the above bullet
points, speak with your healthcare practitioner if you’re still concerned
about including soy in your diet. Otherwise, rest assured that for most women, these
wondrous green beans are part of a diet that is healthy, flavorful, and above all
Our Personal Program is a great place to start
The Personal Program promotes natural hormonal balance with nutritional supplements,
our exclusive endocrine support formula, dietary and lifestyle guidance, and optional
phone consultations with our Nurse–Educators. It is a convenient, at-home
version of what we recommend to all our patients at the clinic.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to call us toll-free at
1-800-798-7902. We're here to listen and help.
Related to this article:
References & further reading on the soy
Last Modified Date: 04/20/2011
Principal Author: Dixie Mills, MD