In some cultures, soy is a mealtime mainstay right from the start. But here in the U.S., soy foods like tofu and miso aren't familiar to many kids or even grown-ups—and there are also rumors that soy may not even be safe. Here's what you need to know:
1. Is soy safe for kids?
The talk about soy being unsafe centers around isoflavones, compounds found in soy that are similar to estrogen. There are worries that these isoflavones could act like estrogen in the body, lowering testosterone levels for boys and men and raising breast cancer risk for girls and women. But research hasn't shown an impact on testosterone—and there's actually evidence that girls who eat soy as a teen and young adult may have a lower risk of breast cancer later in life.
2. What about soy baby formula?
Soy-based formulas are safe and "nutritionally equivalent" to cow milk-based formulas, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While they don't recommend them for preterm infants and say they shouldn't be used to help prevent colic or allergy, the AAP does give them the green light for term infants with certain medical issues such as lactose deficiency or an allergy to cow's milk.
3. Is soy nutritious?
Soy is rich in high-quality protein, which means that (like meat) it contains all of the amino acids we need to get from food to build proteins in the body. Some soy foods like edamame are full of iron and fiber. There's also evidence that soy foods may help lower risk of heart disease.
4. How much soy is okay for kids?
In a recent review of studies, researchers concluded that one serving of soy foods a day was fine for kids. That's about 5-10 grams of soy protein and the equivalent of 1 cup of soy milk, ½ cup cooked soybeans, ½ cup tofu, or 1 ounce soy nuts.
5. What kinds of soy foods are the best?
As with all kinds of food, it's smart to stick with whole, largely unprocessed versions most of the time. For soy, that means choosing foods like tofu, soy nuts, edamame, and soy milk (when buying soy milk, be sure you're picking one that's fortified with calcium and vitamin D and be mindful of added sugars). More highly processed forms of soy--like packaged soy burgers, dogs, and bars--are good sources of protein and fine occasionally, but tend to pack more sodium and have lengthy ingredient lists.
6. How can I make soy foods kid-friendly?
Edamame (whole soybeans either shelled or in the pod) are probably the most kid-friendly form of soy around. Pack them in lunchboxes or serve them as a snack. You can also use soy crumbles or tempeh in place of some or all of the meat in taco and lasagna filling. Or try tossing chunks of extra firm tofu with a yummy sauce and then stir-frying or baking. Like all flavored milk, soy milk is fine in moderation but does contain a few teaspoons of added sugar per glass.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.