How much soy are you eating?

First published Nov 2015

Health experts often alert us on the hidden dangers of certain foods. As someone who likes to be mindful about how – and what – I eat, I regularly check labels for concealed ingredients. I’m not alone in this. But have you considered looking for soy before putting a food item in your shopping basket?

I recently met a friend for lunch in one of the larger coffee shops. The reason for this departure from my usual cosy, local cafe is that the friend has a moderately large number of food allergies and needs to be extremely careful about what she eats away from home. She knew that particular chain had a wide choice of options that didn’t contain one particular added ingredient – soy.

As one of the 14 allergens included on the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation, soy must be clearly labelled as an ingredient on food packaging. But how often is it used as an added ingredient and why? My experiences of eating out and cooking with my friend is that it turns up more often than you might expect. Here are some of the foodstuffs that may contain soy as listed by Allergy Uk

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cakes and biscuits (confectionery with a biscuit base)
  • Canned and tinned soup
  • Chocolate
  • Commercial fruit products
  • Crackers
  • Crisps
  • Flavoured crisps
  • Frozen dessert
  • Ice cream
  • Meat products: cold cuts, beef burgers, meat paste/pies, minced beef, sausages, and hotdogs
  • Milk (coffee whiteners) or cream replacers
  • Pancake and waffle mixes
  • Pasta/pizza bases
  • Ready – meals (convenience meals)
  • Sauces (including Worcester sauce, sweet and sour sauce, Teriyaki sauce, stock cubes, gravy powders and some cook-in sauces)
  • Seasoned salt
  • Snack bars

This list goes some way to explain why my aforementioned friend struggles to eat anything she hasn’t carefully sourced herself. So why are manufacturers adding it to our every day shopping list? Allergen Uk give this explanation –

Soya can also be used in foods as a texturiser (texturised vegetable protein), emulsifier (soya lecithin) or protein filler. Soya flour is widely used in foods including; breads, cakes, processed foods (ready meals, burgers and sausages) and baby foods.

Let’s take a look at one of the examples from Allergy Uk and break it down. As one of the most commonly consumed foodstuffs worldwide, we can’t ignore the use of soy in bread. Firstly, it comes in the form of soy flour. It offers a bleaching effect on wheat flour and smooths the kneading process by changing the texture and water absorption of the loaf before baking. It also creates a softer, more voluminous loaf. (Independent.co.uk, 2011) Sometimes it’s added as an emulsifier in the form of soy lecithin, giving the bake an apparent – but rather artificial – appearance of the ‘ideal’ loaf and slowing the rate at which it goes stale.

All of this feels rather unnecessary and goes a long way to explaining why many food lovers feel that white, supermarket bread has lost it’s soul. But does it really matter that they are adding such ingredients to our regular diet? The jury seems to be out. My own instinct tells me that it can’t be good to be consuming something on a daily basis without total awareness on behalf of the consumer.

An online search quickly reveals numerous articles expressing concern and outrage about the dangers of soy and soya phytoestrogens in the diet. Some believe that it can cause problems with thyroid function, even complicate the sexual development of infants. Advice from the governmental bodies seems scarce. The most balanced article that arose during my search is delivered courtesy of Scientific American, 2009. I will leave you with their conclusion and encourage you to carry out your own research before reaching a decision.

Some researchers believe that waiting for proof from long-term human data may come at a price. “The current scientific evidence isn’t enough to say that exposure to these compounds is toxic, but we also can’t say with certainty that there is no effect,” he (Akingbemi) said. Some researchers believe that waiting for proof from long-term human data may come at a price…

…Patisaul compares the effects of genistein to Bisphenol A, or BPA, the estrogenic compound found in plastic bottles that many scientists suspect can harm brain and reproductive development. “Genistein does the same thing and yet we are supposed to be eating tons of it because it’s supposedly healthy—it just doesn’t make sense,” she said.

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