Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it planned to revoke a health claim that soy protein reduced the risk of heart disease.
For the first time, the FDA considered revoking a food’s health claim since the ’90s, and this was mostly due to ongoing studies about soy’s potential health benefits.
“Numerous studies published since the claim was authorized in 1999 have presented inconsistent findings on the relationship between soy protein and heart disease,” the FDA said in a statement. “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.”
Should we avoid soy?
Changes like these can often lead to confusion, especially among consumers, says Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian based in Vancouver. And soy, in particular, has always been in question.
“Essentially, revoking the claim on soy means that you can’t think of soy protein as a magic bullet to lower cholesterol. It does not mean that soy is bad for you,” she tells Global News.
To break things down: if the health claim of soy states eating 25 grams of it can improve your heart health, evidence has to show this can happen.
“The FDA didn’t have much solid human clinical evidence to support the claim in the first place,” she says. “Because of the claim, it was desirable for manufacturers to add isolated soy proteins to all manner of food — bread, protein bars and cereals — in order to garner the health halo the claim offers. Now, they can no longer do that.”
As a dietitian, she says there is nothing wrong with eating whole, non-GMO soy foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk made from whole beans.
She says most of the fear of eating soy products comes from the knowledge that soybeans contain phytoestrogen which are plant-derived compounds. Phytoestrogens are found in a variety of foods, but mostly in soy.
Some research states, whether or not phytoestrogens are beneficial or harmful to human health remains unresolved, and it can really depend on factors like age and health status.
Nielsen says it can help moderate estrogen levels, and it’s not the same as actually taking estrogen pills.
Where does Canada stand?
In a statement to Global News, Health Canada says it does not plan on reevaluating the evidence about soy protein and its claim to lower cholesterol.
“In 2015, Health Canada published its acceptance of a claim linking the consumption of soy protein and lowering of blood cholesterol, in response to an industry submission,” the statement notes. “Health Canada remains confident that the claim, which is based on the results of a meta-analysis of studies published up until March 2013, is substantiated in accordance with its standards of evidence for food health claims.”
According to the research, the daily consumption of 25 grams of soy protein from a variety of soy foods helped reduce total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol levels by 2.6 per cent and four per cent, respectively.
“The estimated reduction, although modest, is considered beneficial in reducing cholesterol concentrations at the population level. Cholesterol is an important modifiable risk factor for heart disease.”
Eating soy products
Nielsen adds, however, she doesn’t support the idea of only eating isolated soy proteins. “You just can’t expect the benefits of a whole food from an isolate.”
And for vegetarians, she recommends eating meat replacements like burgers, hot dogs and veggie ground, more occasionally and not as a daily staple. Instead, eat less processed soy products like tofu, tempeh and edamame.
READ MORE: How to use soy in your meals
“I treat soy like any other food — eat it regularly, but maintain a good variety in your diet. We shouldn’t eat five apples every single day because we are missing out on the nutrients found in other foods.”
For anyone interested in eating more soy products, she recommends one to three servings of whole soy food in a day.
“If you eat a lot of tofu, switch it up and enjoy almond milk as your beverage, she says.
“Soybeans are just beans. And nutritious ones at that.”