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Soy — Health Food or Not?

It’s a controversial topic in the culinary world today — the perception some have that soy is a health food. Soybeans in the pod, you may know, look a little like short, puffy, green peas with peach fuzz on the outside. Representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced a boomerang-like decision on how soy protein should be viewed from now on.

In fact, the agency is proposing to revoke its long-held stance that soy protein can lower your heart disease risk. The current claim, which you may have seen on various food packages, reads: “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”1

Many health advocates claim soy must be good for you because Asian people — arguably one of the healthiest populations on the planet — have eaten it a lot, and have some of the lowest rates of heart disease, cancer and dementia worldwide,2 so, it appears, the rest of the world should eat soy protein products, too. However, the type of soy traditionally consumed by Asian people differs from that being heavily marketed in the U.S.

Soy rose seemingly from nowhere into the American consciousness in the late 20th century.3 In 1999, the FDA allowed food producers to claim that soy protein was heart healthy, but continuing research has convinced government officials to take a closer look. Incidentally, there are 12 health claims sanctioned by the FDA for packaged foods, including the continued (and false) insistence that saturated fat is the culprit behind heart disease.4

The ‘Soy Is Good for Heart Disease’ Claim up for Discussion

While many in the conventional health and scientific communities aren’t prepared to rescind the assertion completely, Susan Mayne, the FDA’s director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition stated, after what she called an “extensive scientific review:”

“Our review of that evidence has led us to conclude that the relationship between soy protein and heart disease does not meet the rigorous standard for an FDA-authorized health claim … While some evidence continues to suggest a relationship between soy protein and a reduced risk of heart disease — including evidence reviewed by the FDA when the claim was authorized — the totality of currently available scientific evidence calls into question the certainty of this relationship.”5

A 75-day period of discussion is being allowed by the FDA for the public and stakeholders (aka manufacturers, lobbyists and those who stand to profit or suffer from the ruling or revocation) to petition for certain phrasing, which will be taken by a “case-by-case basis.”

However, there’s no guarantee you won’t see claims on food packages continuing the claim of a link between soy protein and a lowered risk of heart disease. In fact, between now and the FDA’s final ruling on the matter, manufacturers can continue advertising the claim. According to Time:

“The FDA says that it intends to allow the use of ‘a qualified health claim’ for soy protein (and says) a qualified health claim requires ‘lower scientific standard of evidence than an authorized health claim’ and would let producers use language that explains that the evidence on the link is limited.”6


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