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Can Soy Save Your Life?

Michelle Stacey separates hype from hope. In its cholesterol-busting guise, soy bears an eerie resemblance to another unglamorous food: oat bran.

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In case you haven't noticed, we're living in an era of high symbolism when it comes to food. Deciding what to eat for dinner seems to have become a test of one's morality, in a system that ranks pasta before steak and bagels ahead of doughnuts. Last summer researchers at the University of Kentucky made headlines by naming yet another healthful food that can save our souls by lowering our cholesterol levels. All hail soy!

"Prepare," Natalie Angier predicted in The New York Times, "for the onslaught: soy cookies, soy bread, soy muffins, soy milk shakes, soy pretzels, soy soups and a new, surely improved version of that old unfavorite, the soy burger." 

In its cholesterol-busting guise, soy--better known to most of us in the form of tofu--bears an eerie resemblance to another long-overlooked and unglamorous food hyped as the ultimate quick fix for high cholesterol: oat bran. But will soy spawn the same barrage of products that oat bran did? There's been little movement as yet by the food industry to make this happen. "There weren't any negative images attached to oat bran before it rose to prominence. It was an unknown," explains Ronald Paul, president of Technomic, a food-consulting firm in Chicago. "Soy, on the other hand, has a bad image. It's going to be a marketing challenge to change the public's view of it." Still, Paul hedges his bets. "I always like to say if you can make the kiwi a success you can make anything a success." 

Part of soy's unsavory reputation, at least among food manufacturers, stems from its widespread use as an inexpensive emulsifier, extender and stabilizer in items like nondairy creamer and processed cheese. What a ready-made opportunity for publicity, one might think: Since soy is already present in so many foods, why shouldn't companies advertise the fact on packaging ("Excellent source of soy!") in the same way that General Mills capitalized on the oat bran in Cheerios? Lynn Dornblaser, publisher of New Product News, a trade publication that tracks new food products at supermarkets and gourmet stores, explains why they don't: "Since soy is a low-cost extender, drawing attention to it could be more of a negative than a positive." 

Soy has an even bigger obstacle to acceptance. Its most enduring image in this country is probably the one formed during those (let's admit it) dreary days of Sixties health food, with its heavy, bland lentil-bulgur stews, noodle loaves and tofu casseroles. Tofu still telegraphs to many people the worst of the era. That might explain why only 2 percent of the two billion bushels of soybeans grown in the United States is consumed as human food--half of it abroad. The rest ends up in products like livestock feed, soaps, glue, bottle caps, pencils, paint, plastics and detergents. 

And there's yet another barrier to soy's mass-market ascent: consumers will have to eat a lot of it to see a cholesterol-lowering effect. The public has wised up since the days when potato chips topped with a smattering of oat bran seemed healthful. Today Americans are more cynical about the claims of would-be culinary saviors. 

The University of Kentucky investigation that hit the papers last August received an enormous amount of scrutiny. The report itself was solid: Kentucky researchers pooled data from 38 previous studies on soy involving a total of 730 subjects, and their findings were convincing enough to receive the imprimatur of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. But upon closer inspection, the study proved to be less dramatic than all those Page One newspaper stories might suggest. 

A daily intake of almost 50 grams of soy protein cut "bad" LDL cholesterol levels by an average of almost 10 percent in one month. That's certainly a big decrease. But you'd need to consume three cups of tofu or soy milk a day to get that much soy protein. Subjects in the study who got 25 grams of soy protein--still a formidable amount--saw cholesterol levels drop by only 2 to 3 percent on average. Intakes below 25 grams were not even tested. But registered dieti-tian Susan M. Potter, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, speculates that the occasional soy burger isn't likely to do much for your cholesterol level--especially if it's already in the healthy range. 

So soy isn't a miracle cure. But there are still plenty of reasons to eat more of it. A growing body of evidence suggests that it may help prevent certain cancers, slow calcium loss from bones and moderate symptoms of menopause. Many of these effects, researchers posit, are due to natural substances in soy called isoflavones, which resemble the hormone estrogen and may replicate the many protective effects of estrogen without any of its drawbacks. "Soy is useful as a general preventive measure," says researcher Margaret Cook-Newell, one of the authors of the University of Kentucky study. 

Faced with the challenge of incorporating more soy foods into their diets, many people may prefer a simpler option: consuming soy in the form of a flavorless powder sold at health food stores, called soy protein isolate, which can be mixed with water and swallowed like medicine. It's possible to ingest enormous amounts of soy that way--even the quantities necessary to lower cholesterol. "You can make a soy protein drink that gives you 20 grams of protein in 10 ounces," says Susan Potter. "It's a little chalky at first, but you can flavor it with fruit. Or you can make muffins and breads with 10 grams of protein per serving. That's the easiest way to go." 

But such a medical approach begs the question of how we as a culture want to think about our food and its effect on our bodies. When scientific knowledge races so far ahead of our lifestyles that we pare food down to its powdered essence, we lose critical parts of the eating experience: not the physical elements but the emotional ones. 

So what's a health-minded but not fanatical person to do? Forget for a moment about a future that includes soy cookies (the kind that would, of course, magically taste like chocolate instead of soy). Instead, enjoy soy in its most delicious guises, in dishes inspired by traditional Chinese and Japanese foods. Certainly billions of Asians have found much to love about soy--in China the word for soybean is dadou, which means "greater bean." Recipes like those that follow from the food & wine test kitchen, which update classic Asian foods and deliver some new cross-cultural variations, showcase the bean to its greatest effect. 

What's easy to forget in the barrage of hype is that if food isn't exciting and satisfying, it's not doing its job. And that can't be healthy. 

Michelle Stacey is the author of Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food (Simon & Schuster).

Published February 1996
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