Soy: The New Superfood?

Is soy as good for your heart as the labels claim?
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A New Heart Hero?

If you've been in a supermarket lately, you couldn't help but notice that soy is, well, everywhere. It's the new star ingredient in cereals, energy bars, and chips, as well as in imitation meat and dairy products from cold cuts, burgers, and chicken, to milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

What's with the soy surge? For starters, after decades of trial and error, food makers finally got a handle on how to produce soy-based foods that Americans will eat. Home cooks who may have been confounded by squishy blocks of tofu know exactly what to do with soy burgers and soy deli meats. And the taste has improved -- dramatically. "It took a while for manufacturers to make soy foods that didn't taste 'beany,' but they've finally done so," says John Erdman, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A major catalyst for the soy-foods explosion was the FDA's announcement five years ago that eating 25 grams of soy protein a day (as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol) lowered cholesterol sufficiently to reduce the risk of heart disease. In its history, the FDA has issued only 12 such food-related health claims. This one was based largely on a 1995 review of 38 studies, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that showed that eating soy protein instead of animal protein -- say, grilling up soy burgers instead of beef patties or using soy milk on your cereal instead of whole cow's milk -- significantly lowered total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Soy became an overnight superfood. Manufacturers slapped the health claim on any product containing at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving, the minimum amount required by the FDA. And consumers started gobbling up these products. The year the health claim came out, soy sales saw a 31 percent increase, and the market has grown an average of 14 percent a year ever since. According to the United Soybean Board, 28 percent of us now buy soy foods once a week or more, mainly because we believe they're healthy.

Continued on page 2:  The Great Diet Debate

 

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