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tofu mealA study recently published in Human Reproduction demonstrated that intake of soy foods significantly reduces sperm counts in men.

The study is especially significant because it is the largest study in humans to examine the relationship between semen quality and phytoestrogens (plant compounds that can mimic the physiological effects of the endogenous hormone, estrogen).

Dr. Jorge Chavarro of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues found that men who ate the most soy food had 41 million sperm per milliliter less than men who did not consume soy products. The normal sperm concentrations for men ranges between 80 and 120 million/ml.

The association between soy food intake and sperm concentrations was even stronger in men who were overweight or obese, and 72% of study participants were. They also found the relationship between soy foods and sperm concentration was strongest in men with “normal or high” sperm counts.

Animal studies have linked the high consumption of isoflavones with infertility, but until now there has been little evidence of this effect in humans. Isoflavones are plant compounds with estrogen like effects and are found mainly in soybeans and soy-derived products.

What is particularly revealing is that the men in the highest intake group (who had the largest sperm count reduction) had a mean soy food intake of only half a serving per day. This is equivalent to having one cup of soy milk or one serving of tofu, tempeh or soy burgers every other day!

I don’t know about you, but I happen to know quite a few people who consume a lot more soy than than that on a regular basis. Sadly, many of them are children whose parents innocently believe that soy products are “healthy”. This is not their fault, of course; this erroneous and dangerous message has been aggressively promoted in the mainstream media for decades.

If the effect of such moderate servings of soy on adult males is so significant, what effect might soy foods have on developing boys who have not yet reached sexual maturity?

“Early puberty (caused by consuming soy products) may increase a boy’s chances of developing testicular cancer later in life, because it means longer exposure to sex hormones,” said University of North Carolina researcher Marcia Herman-Giddens. Congenital abnormalities of male genital tracts are also increasing. Recent studies found a higher incidence of birth defects in male offspring of vegetarian, soy-consuming mothers.

What about babies? Preliminary studies indicate that children given soy formula go through puberty much earlier than children who were not fed soy products. A 1994 study done in New Zealand revealed that, depending on age, potency of the product, and feeding methods, infants on soy formula might be consuming the equivalent of up to 10 contraceptive pills a day. By exposing your baby to such large amounts of hormonal-like substance, you are risking permanent endocrine system damage (pituitary gland, pineal gland, hypothalamus, thyroid, thymus gland, pancreas, ovary, testis, adrenal glands).

Dr Chavarro speculates that the increased estrogenic activity caused by consumption of soy foods may have an adverse effect on the production of sperm by interfering with other hormonal signals. This effect could be strengthened further in overweight and obese men because men with high levels of body fat produce more oestrogen than slimmer men, leading to high overall levels of oestrogen in the body and reproductive organs.

If you’re wondering how soy continues to be so widely accepted and aggressively promoted as a “health food” in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I recommend reading The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla Daniel, PhD, CCN. You can read introduction to this eye-opening book here.

The history of soy products and their designation as a “health food” is particularly revealing, as Daniel points out:

Early soy food promotion in America aimed at two specific markets—vegetarians and the poor—soy milk and soy cereals for Seventh Day Adventists, Bac-O-Bits and meat extenders for the budget conscious. But there was a lot of soy to sell and these markets were limited. There was so much to sell because the market for processed foods had experienced explosive growth since the 1950s—and most processed foods contain soy oil. The industry found itself saddled with a waste problem, the leftover sludge from soy-oil manufacture which it could either dump or promote. The exigencies of corporate life naturally chose profit-seeking over disposal and that meant expanding the market, finding more ways to use soy ingredients in processing and convincing more people to pay money for soy-based imitation foods.

“The quickest way to gain product acceptability in the less affluent society,” said a soy-industry spokesperson back in 1975, “. . . is to have the product consumed on its own merit in a more affluent society.” Thus began the campaign to sell soy products to the upscale consumer, not as a cheap poverty food, but as a miracle substance that would prevent heart disease and cancer, whisk away hot flashes, build strong bones and keep us forever young. Soy funds for research enlisted the voices of university professors who haplessly demonized the competition—meat, milk, cheese, butter and eggs.

Soy is one of the “Big Four” cash crops in the U.S. and the funds for its marketing are enormous:

“Farmers pay a fee for every bushel of soybeans they sell and a portion of every dollar spent on Twinkies, TV dinners and the thousands of other processed foods that contain soy in one form or another, ultimately go towards the promotion of the most highly processed foods of all—imitation meat, milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, candy bars and smoothies made from soy.

All soybean producers pay a mandatory assessment of one-half to one percent of the net market price of soybeans. The total—something like eighty million dollars annually—supports United Soybean’s program to “strengthen the position of soybeans in the market place and maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets for uses for soybeans and soybean products.”

And of course, these advertising dollars are largely responsible for creating the erroneous notion that highly processed soy foods are “healthy”:

“A survey of March 2004 health magazines reveals five-and-one-half pages of ads for products containing soy in Alternative Medicine (two of which promote soy as a solution to the problems of menopause); five-and-one-half pages in Vegetarian Times; and five pages in Yoga Journal. The ads that keep today’s health-oriented publications afloat aim at mainstream, not alternative, culture: soy milk ads feature faces of smiling children; high-protein bars create expressions of ecstacy on upside-down models; and a hostess who serves chocolate-covered soy nuts is the toast of her party.”

However, in spite of advertising and popular belief, processed soy products are not health foods. Because of their estrogenic effects, they act more like drugs in the body than foods. And as we all know, drugs can be extremely dangerous when taken irresponsibly and without indication. Millions of men, women and children around the world are “drugging” themselves daily with soy products, and the tragic irony is that this is done in the name of “health”.

Keep in mind that tofu, tempeh and soy milk are not the only sources of soy. In fact, almost all processed food has soy in it, in the form of soy oil, soy lecithin, soy flour or soy protein. Everything from your favorite corn chips to hamburger buns to mayonnaise is likely to contain a substantial amount of soy.

The most sensible approach, then, is to eliminate processed soy products from your diet and dramatically reduce or eliminate your consumption of processed food (of course there are many other reasons to do this – soy is just one).

A small amount of miso or natto or other fermented soy product as a condiment every now and then is probably not harmful. But those are not the soy products Americans tend to eat.

For more information about the dangers of soy products, please see my recent article called The Soy Ploy.

Today’s article about the dangers of soy products is from Nourishing Our Children, an organization dedicated to supported learning, behavior and health in children through optimal nutrition. I encourage all parents to visit their website and read the “What Parents Need to Know” section. There is also a downloads section with free guides and briefing books available for download.

soybeansAlthough widely promoted as a health food, hundreds of studies link modern processed soy to malnutrition, digestive problems, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, immune system breakdown, and even heart disease and cancer. How could soy be linked to all this disease? Because the soybean contains many naturally occurring toxins. All legumes contain toxins but the problem with soy is that the toxins are found in very high levels and are resistant to the traditional ways of getting rid of them.

Long, slow fermentation (as in the traditional production of miso, tempeh and soy sauce) gets rid of the phytic acid and other digestive inhibitors but not the phytoestrogens in soy.

Myths About Isoflavones

One of the most common myths is that soy estrogens (isoflavones) are beneficial for your health. Isoflavones are the estrogen-like compounds occurring naturally in soy foods. They act as the plant’s natural pesticides, causing insects to become sterile. Research has shown that isoflavones can prevent ovulation and stimulate the growth of cancer cells. As little as 38 mg isoflavones per day (less than the amount found in 1 cup of soy milk) can result in hypothyroidism with symptoms of lethargy, constipation, weight gain and fatigue. The isoflavones in soy have been shown to cause reproductive problems, infertility, thyroid disease and liver disease in mice, rats, cheetahs, sturgeon, quail, sheep, pigs and marmoset monkeys.

Traditional Versus Modern Soy Foods

It is important to distinguish between traditional and modern soy foods. In Asia, traditional soy foods were consumed in small amounts, usually as a fermented condiment. Traditional fermented soy foods include miso, soy sauce, tempeh and natto. Tofu was prepared by a precipitation process that gets rid of some of the anti-nutrients, and tofu was often then fermented. Tofu was usually consumed in small amounts in fish broth, which provided lots of compensating minerals and compounds that support thyroid function.

Soymilk underwent a very long preparation process to get rid of anti-nutrients and it was consumed with shrimp or egg yolk, ingredients that helped compensate for the many anti-nutrients that remained. Mostly a food for the elderly, it was sometimes given to nursing mothers but never to growing children.

Problems with Soy Protein Isolate

Modern soy foods are very different. Most are made with soy protein isolate (SPI), which is a protein-rich powder extracted by an industrial process from the waste product of soy oil manufacturing. It is the industry’s way of making a profit on a waste product. The industry spent over 30 years and billions of dollars developing SPI.

Soy Protein Isolate is produced at very high temperatures and pressures. This processing does get rid of some of the anti-nutrients in soybeans, but unfortunately many of the proteins are denatured in the process, including lysine. That is why growing animals fed soy must be given a lysine supplement. In feeding studies, SPI caused many deficiencies in rats. That soy causes deficiencies in B12 and zinc is widely recognized; but the range of deficiencies was surprising.

Although SPI is added to many foods, it was never granted GRAS status, meaning “Generally Recognized as Safe”. The FDA only granted GRAS status to SPI for use as a binder in cardboard boxes. During the processing of soy, many additional toxins are formed, including nitrates (which are carcinogens) and a toxin called lysinoalanine. It was concerns about lysinoalanine in SPI that led the FDA to deny GRAS status for SPI as a food additive.

In spite of all these problems, SPI is the basic ingredient of soy infant formula and the FDA even allows a health claim for foods containing 6.25 grams SPI per serving.

The Dangers of Soy Infant Formula

Infants on soy formula can take in dangerously high levels of soy isoflavones. On a body weight basis, this can mean ten times the level that can cause thyroid suppression in adults after three months, and eight times the level that can cause hormonal changes in adults after just one month.

According to a Swiss report adult women consuming 100 mg isoflavones (about 2 cups of soy milk, or 1 cup of cooked mature soybeans) provide the estrogenic equivalent of a contraceptive pill.

This means for a baby that weighs 6 kg (or just over 13 pounds), 10 mg provides the estrogenic equivalent of a contraceptive pill. Thus, the average amount of soy-based formula taken in by a child provides the estrogenic equivalent of at least four birth control pills. Because babies are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of dietary estrogens, the effects could actually be much greater than that of four birth control pills.

Hence the statement, “Babies on soy formula receive the estrogenic equivalent of at least five birth control pills per day.”

Homemade Baby Formula

For adopted infants, or as a solution for mothers who aren’t physically able to breastfeed or who aren’t able to produce enough milk, we’d like parents to know that there are nutrient dense, homemade Baby Formula Recipes in the book Nourishing Traditions which have been used with great success by parents all over the world since 1995!

Recommended Links

  • Nourishing Our Children
  • Myths and Truths About Soy
  • Soy Alert

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