I had a blast teaching a Vegan 101 cooking class at Whole Foods yesterday. In addition to sharing my favorite animal-free recipes with the group, I was also able to address a few nutritional controversies that come up when attempting to substitute meat and dairy with plant based protein alternatives. Specifically, I’m talking about soy. I seems you can find a soy version of every food product imaginable: milk, cheese, burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, protein powder, even whipped cream and faux chicken nuggets. Many people that choose a vegetarian diet, have dairy allergies, or even those just attempting to live a healthy lifestyle make the mistake of choosing these foods thinking there is a nutritional advatage in doing so.
I will admit that I was someone that fell into this trap. I was a vegetarian for two years, and ate soy products at almost every meal. I put soy creamer in my coffee, stacked my sandwiches with soy turkey, and often had baked tofu for dinner. Even after re-introducing meat into my diet, I still gravitated to these food products as I naturally don’t have the strongest appetite for meat and dairy. It feels like I was always reading about soy being a ‘superfood’ and since I bought my soy foods at a health food store, it had to be healthy, right? Through my culinary and nutrition education, in addition to my own personal research, it became clear that like everything else, soy is a food to be eaten in moderation.
There is much discussion now about the dangers of highly processed products and the soy foods I mentioned above (yes, even soy milk) falls into this category. Most soy foods contain phytic acid, which can block mineral absorption. There is also evidence tha soy interferes with healthy hormonal balance, and can lead to frightening levels of estrogen in both men and women. In addition to studies linking soy to thyroid problems, dementia, memory loss, and even certain cancers, it becomes apparant that there are far too many warning signs to keep indulging in soy without restraint.
On a more positive note, there are a few exceptions. Soy foods that have been fermented, like miso and tempeh, are in a category all their own and have not been linked to poor health the way non-fermented soy had been. Asian cultures have been enjoying soy for centuries, and overall, and have proven largely to be a very healthy population. The soy they have been eating however, has largely been miso, tofu, and edamame– Not soy bacon and soy protein shakes. I reccomend that if you enjoy tofu and edamame, enjoy it with a clear concious, but maybe limit your intake to 2-3 servings per week.
Happily, the natural foods industry is responding to the new information on soy and experimenting with other foods to create meat and dairy replacements. Almond, rice, hemp, and coconut milks are all delicious, and there are even yogurts and ice cream products that are dairy and soy free. Try switching up the products you use and experimenting to find your favorites. If you are so inclined to create a dairy-free milk at home, I love this DIY coconut milk recipe.