Natural Foods Merchandiser

AHA: Soy does not lower cholesterol

Soy is ineffective at lowering cholesterol, despite years of recommendations to the contrary, the American Heart Association said in a study published online in its journal Circulation.

The AHA reviewed 22 studies published since 2000 and found that on average, soy protein reduced LDL cholesterol by only 3 percent, and soy isoflavones had no clinically significant impact on cholesterol. What's more, claims that soy can help ease symptoms of menopause or prevent cancers of the breast, uterus or prostate were baseless, the committee said, noting that in some cases, soy may have an adverse effect. Because of this, "use of isoflavone supplements in food or pills is not recommended," the report's authors wrote.

However, the AHA committee also noted that soy protein does have a role in a healthy diet. "Soy products such as tofu, soy butter, soy nuts or some soy burgers should be beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health," especially when replacing animal protein or other sources of carbohydrates and fats, "because of [soy's] high content of polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and low content of saturated fat."

The AHA has recommended soy as part of a heart-healthy diet since 2000, a year after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a heart-health claim for products with at least 6.25 grams of soy protein.

Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs with the Council for Responsible Nutrition, doubts the report will sway the FDA or the scientific community. "[AHA] combined studies together. It's not quite proper—it's like mixing apples and oranges together," he said. "From a statistician's point of view, it's a lot more complicated than that." Shao pointed out that each study differed in sample size, doses of soy, duration and gender inclusion. Besides, he said, the benefits of soy and soy protein with respect to cholesterol levels seems to be best for those at highest risk, with LDL cholesterol levels above 160 and total cholesterol above 250.

"Folks need to remember that the benefits of soy protein for cardiovascular health are modest. They've always been modest—not what you would find using a statin drug, for example. … If [people] make other diet and lifestyle changes, it's probably preferred over using prescription drugs," he said.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 22

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