In a recent "Ask Well" column in The New York Times, Anahad O'Connor was asked, "Is It Safe to Eat Soy?" The article suggests that despite concerns, soy is safe to eat—and may even protect against cancer and heart disease.
Whether you feed your children soy foods, or avoid it out of fear it will cause health problems, I queried three registered dietitians well versed on all things soy to clear up the confusion. Below you'll find responses to some questions about soy from Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant Powered Diet; Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; and Reyna Franco, a New York City-based nutrition and exercise consultant.
EZ: With so many parents moving towards plant-based diets for their families, are you concerned about including soy in a child's diet?
SP: Both the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) conclude that moderate soy consumption (up to two servings per day* of whole soy foods) is safe, even for breast cancer survivors. In fact, research indicates that if girls eat soy early on, it may even protect them against breast cancer. Despite some urban legends and myths surrounding soy, particularly about its phytoestrogens, scientists now know that soy does not increase estrogen levels in humans, nor does it feminize men.
VS: Soy, which can be an excellent source of plant-based protein and other nutrients, has been consumed in Asia for more than 1000 years. Current research suggests that it is safe to consume two to three servings of soy foods every day as part of a balanced and varied diet (with the exception of people who are allergic to soy or who have thyroid or other problems that might be affected by soy intake). Soy foods have even been shown to confer health benefits when introduced to kids. The key is to ensure that a child's plant-based diet includes a wide variety of foods.
RF: My only concern about including soy in a child's diet is to make sure he or she gets sufficient calcium. Most kids get much of their calcium from dairy products. So if they cut out cow's milk and replace it with soy milk, I recommend organic non-GMO** soy milk that is calcium fortified.
EZ: How much is too much when it comes to kids and soy?
SP: Soy experts usually suggest that kids have no more than two servings of whole soy foods per day. The important thing about a plant-based diet is that it should be based on variety. And there are plenty of other protein foods, such as nuts and seeds, nut butters, beans, lentils, peas. Whole grains and vegetables also contain protein, though at slightly lower levels.
VS: While soy foods offer many nutritional and health benefits, overdoing it will potentially lead a child to miss out on other key foods and nutrients. While there's no specific limit on soy foods for kids, it's key to ensure that soy foods are one part of the child's varied diet.
RF: I think it's very difficult for kids to consume too much soy, and I'm not aware of any specific upper limits. It's a safe and healthy plant-based protein. The key is to consume a wide variety of plant proteins, including soy, to get a mix of nutrients to help kids grow optimally.
EZ: What are your favorite soy food recommendations?
SP: Personally, I prefer organic and non-GMO** soy foods. But I think parents need to decide for themselves whether supporting this form of agriculture is important to them. Nutritionally, they are pretty much the same. I recommend minimally processed soy foods, such as tofu, soy milk, edamame, soybeans, soy nuts. Prepared soy foods such as meatless chicken nuggets, hot dogs, tofu sausages or veggie burgers) can also offer quick easy solutions that taste good and are kid-friendly. Parents can also make a soy shake with fruit and almond butter, soy yogurt with fruit and granola. They can also cook with tofu—I grate it with mushrooms to make a tofu taco filling, stir it into Chinese stir-fry, and even puree it into a peanut butter pie.
VS: I recommend edamame as an easy, portable snack; soy milk in overnight oats or a smoothie; tofu (extra firm), cubed and sautéed with olive oil, garlic, spices, crumbled into tofu scramble (vegan version of scrambled eggs), or used to make vegan pancake batter.
RF: Kids love to snack on edamame. I also recommend soy nuts. Tempeh and tofu are great for making stir-fries, wraps and salads. Parents can also make soy burgers and tofu steaks.
EZ: Do you have any concerns about processed soy foods?
SP: Although I recommend mostly whole soy foods, processed soy foods can be included in a child's diet in small amounts. But because many of these foods contain a lot of artificial ingredients and sodium, it's important for parents to read food labels and look for the "cleanest" ingredients in ingredients lists.
VS: Processed foods are processed foods regardless of whether they contain soy foods.They can be included as part of a healthy diet in moderation. However, it is ideal to enjoy soy foods in their natural state to maximize benefits and minimize ingredients us as additives and sodium.
RF: My concern about soy foods, processed or not, are GMOs**. That is why I recommend organic soy products labeled as Non-GMO. I also suggest limiting processed foods altogether.
*According to the AICR, 1 cup of soy milk, ½ cup cooked soybeans, or 1/3 cup or 1 ounce soy nuts equals 1 serving of soy.
**GE foods is the term preferred by the U.S. FDA.
Image of soy products isolated on white via Shutterstock.