Soy presents something of an eternal debate in health foodie circles: Should one eat tofu? Drink soy milk? What about soybean oil? Is soy good, bad, neutral? Will it make men effeminate and women infertile? [Should you probably just eat seitan and drink almond milk instead? [That's my preference, or less processed, fermented soy foods like miso and tempeh.]
But while the estrogen in soy and other health scares have dominated public attention, one of the real dangers of soy—or its most common form in the American diet, soybean oil—is it’s omega-6 fatty acid content. It’s much higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s; they’re both beneficial, but should be consumed at around at 4:1 or even 2:1 ratio, while the average American consumes 12 to 20 times as many omega-6′s as omega-3s.
Food journalist Melanie Warner, author of the new book Pandora’s Lunchbox, talked to Democracy Now! about how to differentiate between good soy products and bad soy products. Here’s Warner on the problem of soybean oil:
Soybean oil has been the leading fat that’s been in processed food for the past five or six decades. It’s so prevalent that it consumes—my estimation was that it—we’re consuming 10 percent of our total daily calories from soybean oil, in part because it’s in—used to fry a lot of foods. So, soybean oil is something that when you go to the grocery store, I’ve seen—I’ve seen it listed on chip packages as a simple, natural ingredient. And if you look at bottles of cooking oil over in a different aisle, it’ll say “100 percent natural.” But I spent a fair amount of time learning about how soybean oil is produced, and when you find out about it, you realize it doesn’t scream “natural” at all. The main process uses a chemical called hexane, which is known to be a neurotoxic chemical. And they use that to leech the oil out of the soybeans. It’s very efficient at doing that. And then they vacuum it off. So the idea is that no hexane remains in the final oil, or if any does, it’s small amounts. And then soybean oil goes through other processes, like bleaching and deodorizing. And this has the effect of removing some of the healthy things that would otherwise be in soybean oil, like vitamin E and compounds called phytosterols. So—and then sometimes there’s more processes, like hydrogenation, this relatively new process called interesterification. So this is a very processed processed oil that we’re consuming.
Soybean oil is mainly a problem of fast food, fried foods and processed, packaged foods like crackers, cookies and chips. Things like tofu and soy milk are more complicated; they seem to me mostly fine/neutral in moderation. Highly processed soy products—like some tofu dogs, veggie burgers and veggie chicken patties—are best eaten occasionally.
“Ingredients such as soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, textured soy protein and hydrolyzed plant protein were unheard of until after World War II,” writes Kaayla Daniels, author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food. “These quintessentially western products are manufactured using high-tech, industrialized processes that compromise protein quality, reduce vitamin levels and leave toxic residues and carcinogens.”