Depending on who you ask, it is either a wonderful super food or a hormone disrupting poison.

As with most things in nutrition, there are good arguments on both sides.

Soy is often reported to have both beneficial and harmful effects. So is it safe or not?

Recently, it appears dark clouds of doubt have loomed over its super-health status with tales of tumours and thyroid disorders appearing on ‘sinful soy’ internet sites.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.

There have been many media reports of studies on both sides of this question and it can be difficult to know what to think.

Still, there are few medical areas in which soy proves its health benefits:

Menopause

What really sparked health experts’ interest in soy foods were the low rates of breast cancer and menopausal problems, like hot flushes, seen among soy-eating Asian women, compared to western women.

So far, these positive effects have been attributed to isoflavones, which act as a plant version of the female hormone oestrogen.

During menopause, oestrogen levels drop causing uncomfortable symptoms, like hot flushes.

It is thought the isoflavones in soy, acting as a weak form of oestrogen, help keep oestrogen levels up. In other words, by artificially replacing the lost oestrogen, symptoms such as hot flushes will be reduced.

After menopause, increasing amounts of calcium are lost from our bones, with a resulting decrease in bone density and strength.

Both the isoflavones and protein in soy are thought to help reduce this loss, as well as providing more calcium back into the diet.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer can be both hormone-dependent and independent, and can behave differently whether it occurs before or after menopause.

In addition, it is hard to know if you are more at risk of hormone-sensitive breast cancer or not, although it is the more common form of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

Other influencing factors for pre-menopausal women are body weight, whether or not you’ve had children, are on the pill or started your periods early.

And in relation to soy, much of the research to date is limited to animal studies, which cannot be directly translated into advice for us humans.

While there is a long and safe history of soy food consumption in Asian countries which has been associated with reduced risk for hormone-sensitive cancers, the effects of taking soy supplements are not consistent, and may be affected by individual factors.

Heart health

Health claims on foods containing a certain amount of soy, stating it can help to prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol levels, have been allowed in the US since 1999 and from 2002 in the UK.

These are based on the effects of soy protein, not the isoflavones as implicated in breast cancer or the control of menopausal symptoms.

The American Heart Association has reiterated this approach, suggestig soy-containing foods could be useful within an eating pattern low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

But it does not support the use of isoflavones as supplements. This will be a great disappointment for those people who prefer taking a pill to eating tofu.

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Depending on who you ask, it is either a wonderful super food or a hormone disrupting poison. As with most things in nutrition, there are good arguments on both sides. Soy is often reported to have both beneficial and harmful effects. So is it safe or not? Recently, it appears dark clouds...