The rise and fall—and rise?—of soy

The rise and fall—and rise?—of soy

Remember soy? Part of the Big 3 of American agribusiness, soy was an original member of the nascent hippie foods movement that gave birth to today’s natural and organic industries, what with its ease in transmogrifying to tofu or tempeh or soymilk.

Then, in 1999, the FDA decreed that soy protein, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. I’m not sure how gravy tastes with soy, but these were gravy days indeed for soy.

As the decade of the Naughties wore on, however, various voices in the wilderness started questioning soy’s true health benefits. In 2006, the American Heart Association declared that soy has little effect on cholesterol and is unlikely to prevent heart disease, choosing to ignore soy’s ease in becoming a substitute for beef, which the AHA still has a bit of a problem with. Soy got further battered when, in 2008, an organization petitioned the FDA to just get rid of soy’s health claim altogether.

That didn’t happen, but the soy market has remained flat over the past few years.

I’ve been following the soy story since my first tofu stir fry. The best thing I’ve seen in the last few years, despite the tide of bad ink, is the discovery and commercialization of a soy peptide called lunasin. It lowers cholesterol by inhibiting production of LDL cholesterol and increasing LDL receptors that cleanses LDL produced by liver in bloodstream. Lunasin works so well that some researchers will tell you that all soy research showing a cholesterol benefit had lunasin in it, while negative studies had soy that was conspicuously absent in it.

Riveting stuff, as far as I’m concerned. But it didn’t do much for the soy market.

Study lauds soy

Last week, however, I wrote about an eye-catching study that has the potential to open a huge new market for the soy purveyors. I called lead researcher Blake Rasmussen, PhD, at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who presented a paper at the Experimental Biology meeting showing that a combination of soy along with casein and whey was superior to whey alone for prolonging muscle building and recovery after exercise.

That’s because whereas whey gets absorbed between 30 and 60 minutes, soy takes from 1 to 2 hours, and casein between 3 and 5 hours. Put them all together and you have a long-lasting protein effect.

Of course, there are caveats aplenty, and the critics were hot to comment, to wit: casein and soy are relatively undigestible proteins, and just because a protein combination’s effects can be measured in hours does not necessarily mean that this longer period of muscle protein synthesis will result in bigger, stronger, faster muscles over weeks and months.

Soy for the elderly

Maybe so. But what is even more intriguing to me is that a combination of protein sources might be useful not only for athletes, but also for the geriatric set, who could likely benefit from having prolonged protein working on their sarcopenia-withering muscles all the way until their next meal.

The addition of soy is also important because of soy’s particular properties including an antioxidant and as an anti-inflammatory—both key attributes in muscle building beyond anabolic effects.

“Protein blends are useful for sports nutrition,” Rasmussen told me, “but also for those interested in aging and maintaining muscle mass as we age. This could potentially be a great intervention for aging.”

Most protein powders on the market seem to be sold to either athletes or as just another tub of protein. But elderly nutrition? Calling all marketers: There’s a generation of boomed-out Americans who are ready to hear your call. 

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