“I used to sneak soy into almost everything,” says cookbook author Dana Jacobi.
“The idea was to make dishes so wonderful and delicious that no one ever knew.” These days, the author of The Joy of Soy doesn’t hesitate to divulge her culinary secrets, from the silken tofu in her carrot flan to the vanilla soy milk in her coconut-banana bread pudding. “With all the good news about soy,” she says, “people are happy to find ways to add it to their diets.”
No longer does seeking soy have to be a problem-or an all-consuming pastime. New products offer options that span the whole range of meals from breakfast to bedtime snack. Supermarkets now carry flavoured soy milk, crunchy soy nuts, crisp soy-based cereals, soy burgers and even sports energy bars laced with soy. The reason: convinced by evidence that soybean products can, as part of a low-fat diet, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by keeping cholesterol levels down, the FDA recently gave food makers the green light to tout these benefits right on the label. And the American Heart Association issued a recommendation urging Americans with high cholesterol to incorporate more soy in their diets.
Supplement makers have seized the moment, too, churning out pills containing purified soy isoflavones, the estrogen-like substances thought to account for some of the soybean’s salutary effects. But if getting a little soy can help keep you healthier, eating a lot-especially in concentrated pill form-isn’t a smart idea. No one knows whether high doses are safe.
Besides, it’s only the soy in foods-such as protein-packed soybeans-not pills, that you can count on to lower your cholesterol. Most studies have found that health benefits come from soy protein that naturally contains isoflavones. (Soy sauce, incidentally, though derived from soy beans, has no isoflavones.) A 1995 analysis of studies found that people with elevated cholesterol who consumed an average of 47 grams of soy protein a day saw their total cholesterol fall by about nine percent and their LDL cholesterol (the artery-clogging kind) by as much as 13 percent. That’s a lot, since every one-percent drop lowers heart-disease risk by two percent.
In Japan and China, where soy foods are part of almost every meal, death rates from breast and prostate cancers are much lower than what they are in North America. Scientists aren’t certain it’s soy that makes the difference, since Asian diets differ from ours in numerous ways. But when Japanese researchers compared 1200 women who had breast cancer with 23,000 healthy volunteers, they found that premenopausal women who ate tofu at least three times a week decreased their risk for breast cancer. And in a study in Singapore, premenopausal women who consumed the most soy had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer than did those who ate the least.
While the results for cancer protection aren’t conclusive, researchers agree that the subject warrants continued investigation.
Some studies also hint that soy may ease menopause discomforts. The idea makes sense, since soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens.
During menopause, the thinking goes, these compounds can step in to stem the drop in a woman’s natural estrogen. In 1999, researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine reported on a group of menopausal women who augmented their meals with 10 grams of soy protein twice a day. The regimen modestly eased the severity of their hot flashes and night sweats. In a more recent review of studies, Mayo Clinic researchers found that dietary soy was less effective than estrogen-but a bit better than a placebo-at easing hot flashes. The experts agree that more studies are needed to determine the role that soy plays in mitigating menopausal symptoms.
How Often Should You Have Soy?
Soy’s power against cholesterol and the strong suggestion that it can lower cancer risk are reason enough to make it a regular guest at your table. How often? If your cholesterol’s fine and you’d like to keep it low, just put some soy in your meals. If your cholesterol is moderately high and you’d rather avoid medication, try for 25 grams of soy protein a day, as recommended by the FDA. (But do this with your doctor’s okay.) You don’t have to emulate cookbook author Jacobi and go all out with tofu. Just three ounces can deliver 4 to 19 grams of soy protein, depending on the variety. And lots of flavored versions are available. Then again, with so many soy foods now on store shelves, you don’t even have to look at tofu if you don’t want to.
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