?Now with Soy.? You?ve seen thisâor a similarâstatement on labels for everything from energy bars to veggie burgers to supplements to beverages.
Indeed, ever since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1999 allowed a health claim for soy, natural and mainstream food manufacturers have touted their products containing soy as healthy-for-you foods.
Soy has become such a consumer draw that merely affixing ?Now with Soy?-type statements on labels can often spark increased sales.
But all soy is not the same, and not all foods containing soy qualify for FDA?s health claim. Some soyfoods are whole-soy products; some contain soy protein isolates; and some, often supplements, contain only soy isoflavones. Some foods contain substantial amounts of soy; some contain minute amounts. As a result, ?Now with Soy? can mean good-for-you or it can mean nothing at all?or it can even mean beware, say natural soyfoods makers.
?It?s like saying, ?Now with Snake Oil,? ? says Steve Demos, president of Boulder, Colo.-based White Wave, the manufacturer of Silk soymilk.
Demos, a soyfoods guru by most accounts, says the halo surrounding soy is well-deserved. ?It?s rooted in great facts. It?s a complete protein, it has positive health benefits.? But retailers should be aware of issues surrounding the growing popularity of soy as a good-for-you food.
One issue is efficacy: How much soy do the products contain? ?If you are measuring the content in milligrams, you are so far away from any soy benefit it doesn?t even warrant evaluation,? Demos says. Allan Routh, president of Hope, Minn.-based Sunrich Inc., a unit of Canadian soy giant Sun Opta, agrees. ?Unfortunately, most of the time ?Now with Soy? means the product contains a small component of soy, like extracted isoflavones or soy protein. ?Exposed to Soy? would be a better term,? he says.
To qualify for the FDA?s health claim, foods must contain at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving and also be low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. As Demos says, if a food product contains soy content measured in milligrams, that means thousands of servings would have to be consumed to gain any benefit soy has to offer.
But there?s more to consider than simply the amount of soy in a product. Both Demos and Routh say that extracting certain componentsâespecially the isoflavones diadzein and genisteinâfrom whole soy can dilute the venerable bean?s health claim. These isoflavones are often sold as dietary supplements to relieve menopausal symptoms, because soy isoflavones contain a weak form of plant estrogen, and estrogen-replacement therapy has been shown to alleviate hot flashes. However, some studies also show that high isoflavone levels might increase women?s risk of breast cancer, especially in breast cancer survivors, and many breast cancer survivors are advised against eating foods high in soy content.
While the research on isoflavones isn?t yet conclusive, ?Any time you extract something from its natural state, you?re going to concentrate its potency and density,? Demos says.
The subject of soy isoflavones clearly raises red flags for Routh. ?It?s taking what is unknown, or doubtful science, and wrapping it around soy studies and benefits,? he says.
As if isoflavones weren?t enough to consider, Demos and Routh also say natural foods retailers need to be aware of how the isolated soy protein, or soy concentrate, in the products they sell is processed. One method, called aqueous extraction, uses water. Another method uses chemicals. Some soy flour, for example, is bathed in hexane, a petroleum product similar to gasoline. Demos believes natural foods stores should seriously consider whether to stock these types of soy products. ?I think to say hexane-processed soy is a natural food is just wrong,? he says.
But if retailers continue to stock chemically processed soyfoods, Demos would like them to consider signage that would identify soy products as being manufactured using ?natural, traditional? processes or as ?alcohol washed, or solvent washed.?
?We need to differentiate natural food from unnatural food and let the consumer understand the difference,? he says.
Sunrich Vice President Tina Nelson says there is a grassroots movement among some natural foods retailers, particularly on the West Coast, to remove hexane-processed soyfoods from store shelves. Soy product makers and suppliers that populate the natural foods industry seem to agree that the natural products retailers? role in the complexity that has come with the ?Now with Soy? craze, is, as always, consumer education.
?There is a wide range of soy ingredients, and retailers should familiarize themselves with [it],? Nelson says. ?For example, the term texturized soy proteinâit?s soy flour that has been texturized through an extrusion process that may or may not be chemical.?
Nelson says the quickest and easiest way to determine the type of processing is to look for the word organic. ?If something says it contains organic soy protein,? she says, ?you can safely make the assumption that it?s not been exposed to chemicals.?
Ultimately, the full benefit of soy comes when it is used as a whole food, Demos, Routh and Nelson say.
?The whole matrix of soy is needed,? Routh argues. ?When you have a product that?s fractionalized and isolated, you?ve lost lots of the beneficial components of soy.?
Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a Boulder, Colo.-based writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 11/p. 16, 18