A three-inch-long green bean is polarizing health food advocates and terrorizing North American consumers. The soybean, used in making tofu, soy sauce and soy milk, was once viewed as a “superfood,” says soy expert Dr. Mark Messina. Now the protein-rich legume is provoking raging debates. Does it boost brain power or cause dementia? Does it fight cancer or shrink penises? Should boys drink it or will it turn them gay?
A vegan cookbook author on B.C.’s Denman Island is so fed up assuaging fears she’s using her website to post people’s panic-filled questions along with links to scientific papers. Bryanna Clark Grogan makes her own soy milk at home. “I’m getting the same questions over and over again,” she says, questions like, “I read that soy kills sperm. Can soy affect menstruation? Is it true tofu gives you Alzheimer’s?” Last week, she says, a girl asked, “I really want to use soy but how do you handle the hair loss thing?” Grogan is 60. Her hair reaches down her back. She sent the girl a photo of herself. “There are so many crazy stories going around,” she says. “I’ve gone to the health food store and had one of the owners come up and ask me if it was all right to give soy to her son because she was worrying about his penis getting too small.”
Canadian biochemist Richard Béliveau holds the Chair in Prevention and Treatment of Cancer at the Université du Québec. “You’re probably touching on the most complicated subject in relation to food and cancer, which is soy,” he says. Scientists got interested in soy after it was noticed that breast cancer in Asia is low compared to North America. “Among the things identified in the lifestyle of Japanese and Chinese women is that they eat soy on a regular basis,” says Béliveau. “In soy, you have a class of molecules called phytoestrogens that are very similar to estrogens, the female sex hormone.” Béliveau believes “phytoestrogens are able to prevent estrogens from interacting with breast cells.”
Menopause guru Dr. Christiane Northrup tells thousands of women to eat soy. “Soy may be helpful for conditions associated with hot flashes, vaginal dryness, night sweats, and mood swings.” Still, “every day I receive letters from individuals who have heard that soy is dangerous.”
Online searches frustrate Grogan. “Every time I search soy, it’s negative.” SoyOnlineService, for instance, states: “Myth: Soy estrogens are good for you. Truth: At dietary levels, they can prevent ovulation and stimulate the growth of cancer cells.” In an article titled “Soy is making kids ‘gay,’ ” Jim Rutz writes, “I have nothing against an occasional soy snack. Unfortunately, when you eat or drink a lot of soy, you’re getting substantial quantities of estrogens. Soy is feminizing, and frequently leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality.”
In July, the BBC reported a Harvard study found “a regular diet of even modest amounts of food containing soy may halve sperm concentrations.” Soy advocate Mark Messina lambastes the findings: “It was an absolute terrible study. It shouldn’t have been published.” The study involved 99 men from fertility clinics. “Most of the reduction of sperm concentration was because ejaculate volume increased. If anything, that’s a cool finding. But I don’t think soy increases ejaculate volume, and there have been four clinical studies where you feed soy and look at sperm and you don’t see anything. But the Harvard study got 900,000 hits! There’s just so much misinformation about soy,” laments Messina, from his home in Washington state. “It’s just a mess.” He blames a group called the Western A. Price Foundation, “whose main claim to fame is bashing soy.” To Messina, their most aggravating assertion is that Asians don’t eat much soy.
“Overall consumption of soy in Asia in surprisingly low,” explains the foundation’s website. “It is not a staple like rice, fish or pork. Soy is a condiment. No one would call mustard a staple in the American diet even though it is a very typical foodstuff.”
Yoshi Yoshihara moved to Canada from Japan and adamantly refutes the condiment claim. “No, no, no! It’s a main source of protein. Because my family didn’t eat meat, we relied on tofu. The tofu vendor came every other day on his bike. We bought several cakes of tofu a week,” he says. “I’ve heard about the anti-soy campaign. To me, it’s a very strange phenomenon, like the Flat Earth Society.”
“It’s very funny,” says Béliveau. “We eat junk food, we’re facing the biggest obesity problem in the history of mankind, and we question that soy could lead to a health problem. We’re very racist when it comes to food. Soy has been consumed for thousands of years by billions of people. If there was a health issue, we’d see it. It’s impossible.”