Oh boy, oh boy, let’s talk about soy. Soy has been around for thousands of years and is considered a staple in Asian cuisine.
If you or someone you love has a soy allergy though, it can also be quite pesky. Soy is insidious—it hides in everything. Soy is often used as an emulsifier—meaning it makes oil and water mix together, which they have trouble doing on their own—making it a common ingredient in many processed foods (think your favorite chocolate chunk granola bar 😬).
Today we’ll share the good, the bad, and the ugly of this Top-8 allergen.
What is soy?
Soy is a popular legume of Asian origin. Beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts are also legumes.
Soy has many nutritional benefits and it’s a complete protein—meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Because of this, many vegetarian and vegan individuals add soy to their diet as a meat substitute to get a protein boost. Soybeans are also low in saturated fat, and good sources of vitamin C, folate, thiamin, phosphorus, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Soybeans come in many colors. Green soybeans—considered “young” soybeans—are often steamed, salted, and eaten whole (hello, edamame!). Yellow soybeans are commonly used to make soymilk, tofu, tempeh, and tamari. Black soybeans are often simmered or fermented and used in cooking.
Manufacturers have also been known to extract the oil from soy and use it to make candles, crayons, engine lubricants, and more!
Is soy bad for you?
Soy has gotten a bad rap. Why? Some people fear that eating too much soy may increase the risk of breast cancer, hinder thyroid function, or have feminizing effects in men. However, when human studies were completed, most of the results showed no associated effects or strong links.
Some common fears include:
Estrogen-mimicking effects: Soy isoflavones are thought to mimic the female hormone estrogen. They’re similar in structure but have weaker (and slightly different) effects. Others worry soy reduces the production of testosterone, but human studies have not found a strong link.
Cancer risk: Some people believe soy raises the risk of endometrial or breast cancer. Most studies have found no negative effect.
Thyroid function: Some animal studies suggest compounds found in soy may reduce thyroid gland function. Human studies, conversely, have found little to no negative effects.
Danger to babies: Some people fear soy formula may negatively affect several areas of a baby’s development. However, studies typically fail to find any long-term negative effects on otherwise healthy babies.
Digestive issues: Animal studies suggest the anti-nutrients in soy may reduce the gut’s barrier function, which may result in inflammation and digestive issues.
What is soy lecithin, and why does it seem to be in everything?
Soy lecithin is an emulsifier—a “glue” of sorts that helps keeps ingredients together. Remember those chocolate chunk granola bars I mentioned earlier? In chocolate, lecithin keeps the cocoa butter portion stable, so it doesn’t separate from other ingredients. Without the lecithin, the chocolate texture wouldn’t be as velvety and smooth as we’re used to. There are a LOT of foods that benefit from lecithin’s emulsifying abilities—think creamy salad dressings and mayonnaise.
Lecithin helps stabilize emulsions, which can extend a food’s shelf life. It can also reduce stickiness (enter Pam, a staple to kitchens for many generations 😉).
Although soy lecithin has several benefits, many people dislike it because it’s often considered artificial. While lecithin is naturally-occurring in soybeans, it’s often extracted using harsh chemicals. Also, it’s usually derived from genetically-modified soybean plants (we cover GMOs at length in this previous blog post). The majority of soybean and corn crops in America are genetically-modified, so it can be hard to avoid completely.
Soy allergy facts
In America alone, almost 2 million people manage a soy allergy. Soy allergy is more common in infants and young children than in older children. Allergic reactions to soy are typically mild, but all reactions can be unpredictable in nature as rare, severe, and potentially life-threatening reactions can occur.
Since soy is widely used in processed food products, it’s vital that individuals with a soy allergy diligently read food labels.
Soy can also be found in vegetable gum, vegetable starch, and vegetable broth. It’s also been known to sneak into baked goods, crackers, canned tuna and meat, infant formulas, and skincare products.
Interestingly, highly-refined soy oil is not required to be labeled as an allergen. Clinical studies have shown highly-refined oils can often be safely eaten by food-allergic individuals because they contain extremely small levels of allergenic protein. Soy lecithin, however, contains a small amount of soy protein. Products containing soy lecithin will label foods for the presence of soy. The protein level is low enough that it usually doesn’t result in an allergic reaction, however, it’s important to talk to your doctor before ingesting soy lecithin or highly-refined soy oil!
Soy sauce substitutes
Ah, soy sauce! That salty condiment often accompanying Asian cuisine. Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat. The most common ingredients in soy sauce are soybeans, wheat, salt, fermenting agents (e.g., mold or yeast), and water.
Love the flavor soy sauce adds to your food but can’t stomach (or are allergic to) soy? Here are some soy-free ideas to add to your pantry:
So there you have it, friends and followers, that’s the low down on soy—as promised, we talked the good, the bad, and the delicious. Do you have a soy allergy? What’s been your experience? Leave us a comment below—you know we love a good food allergy chat. 🙌
– Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team