Soy what?

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 23, 2008

So, it’s official: My biggest weakness, when it comes to meat, comes at breakfast time. Sausage! Bacon! How can I resist these savory treats? What are eggs without a sausage link on the side? What is French toast without salty bacon to counter the sweet syrup? These are serious questions, and I’ve floundered in attempts to find answers as I explore my quasi-meat-free diet (for those who don’t recall, I am only eating meat on weekends from now on; see "Eating, My Words," by Deirdre Fulton, December 28, 2007).

For breakfast meats, as well as for the burgers, chicken nuggets, and turkey slices that fledgling vegetarians might miss, there are popular substitutions — Boca Burgers, Morningstar Farms Sausage Patties, and Lightlife Smart Deli Turkey Slices are just a few of the most popular. Thanks to the vegetarian roommate I lived with all through college, I liked these products long before I semi-swore off animal protein. But now that I’m in a position to rely on these meat substitutions more than ever, I’m not convinced that they’re the healthiest choice.

All of those products, as well as the soy milk and tofu that many vegetarians and health nuts swear by, have one ingredient in common: obviously, soy, from soybeans. In fact, some derivative of soybeans (including the vegetable oil made from them) is found in nearly every food we eat — like corn, it’s a cash crop that brings in billions of dollars to US farmers.

As opposed to the fermented soy we find in a lot of Asian cooking — such as miso or tempeh — a lot of the soy we consume in America (including some tofu) is unfermented, processed speedily to improve its flavor, but leaving most of its natural toxins intact.

These naturally occurring "isoflavones" are what’s causing the controversy among nutritionists and scientists, some of whom laud soy as a something of a diet and health miracle ingredient; others blame increased soy intake for everything from thyroid disorders to premature puberty. See, isoflavones are phytoestrogens — the plant-version of estrogen, the hormone that makes women different from men. Infants who drink soy-milk formula are potentially ingesting unhealthy levels of hormones — hormones that could speed up their transformation into physical adulthood. Another concern: although people thought for years that soy helps to lower "bad" cholesterol (and therefore could help prevent heart disease), the American Heart Association recently expressed doubt about that claim.

Ultimately, people who think they’re eating healthfully by choosing tofu over beef are probably right (and there's no question that they're making the eco-friendly choice), but they may not be totally in the clear — and as with all debates, this one remains inconclusive. I contacted Maine-based author Meg Wolff (whose story of breast-cancer recovery, Becoming Whole, emphasizes a macrobiotic diet), who blogs at about health and food, to ask for her take on the soy controversy.

Until I hear more persuasive arguments from either side, I think her balanced approach is a smart one: “I do get some of my protein from soy, but it’s not my primary source,” Wolff writes in an e-mail. “Mainly because I like variety! So once or twice a week, I’ll have non-GMO (non-genetically modified) organic soy in the form of tofu and tempeh ... but I also like eating a variety of beans, such as kidney, aduki, black, chickpea, lentils ... And many people forget that there’s also some protein in whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, millet, and even oatmeal.”

In other words, let’s hear it for moderation, which does leave room for the occasional fake-meat sausage.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

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