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Soy milk has gained a lot of popularity in Western countries in the last few decades. As it is promoted as a healthy food, a lot of people have replaced other food items in their diet with soy-based foods. The USFDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has even permitted manufacturers to label it as a heart-healthy food. While this claim is not entirely wrong, research has claimed certain dangers of consuming soy milk in large quantities. What does this research suggest? Let's find out.

There is not one single decisive study that says that soy milk is definitely bad for the human body. However, it is a fact that too much of even a good thing is unhealthy. Moreover, it is going to be a while before any specific and thorough evidence about the ill-effects of soy milk are found. Yes, there are instances where people have developed health conditions that have improved after stopping the intake of soy milk. But these are few cases and other changes in diet, lifestyle and medication have not been studied. As such, let's just say that one glass of soy milk (preferably unflavored varieties) a day will not harm you even if it doesn't do you any good. In fact, you can make this milk at home with organic soy beans to ensure that you only get the best of what it has to offer.

Concerns about Soy Milk

So why is there a sudden rise in the concern about the dangers of soy milk? It is because research has proven that in excess amounts, soy milk can be dangerous. It has been found that the industrial process of production of soy milk does not guarantee extensive filtering for toxin elimination as the traditional method does, which is why the popularity of the many benefits of soy milk is slowly waning. Soy milk is heated at extremely high temperatures in the industrial process, and this results in the degeneration of the protein found in soy. This makes it unhealthy because the degenerated protein becomes difficult to digest, and may cause symptoms such as cramping and nausea. The industrial processing method also destroys a natural product called cysteine in soy milk, which makes it difficult to absorb other nutrients. Stabilizers and other preservatives are added to it to enhance shelf life, which may or may not be healthy.

Potential Dangers

The first thing you need to check about soy milk is whether you are allergic to it or any ingredient in it in particular. In such a case, whether it is good or bad will not concern you if you cannot consume soy milk. Dr. Kaayla Daniel, author of 'The Whole Soy Story', has pointed a lot of negative effects of soy milk related to malnutrition, digestive distress, breakdown of the immune system, thyroid problems, reproductive disorders, etc. Following are some of the potential dangers which may be observed if soy milk is consumed in excess. Consult your physician if you develop any kind of side effect upon consuming it.

To Women
  • Soy is rich in phytoestrogens, which are plant-derived chemicals that are similar to the estrogen hormone found in women. While they are healthy in several cases, in cases of excess consumption of soy milk, they may particularly hamper healthy thyroid function in women. Women who suffer from hypothyroidism may be most affected, as soy is known to slow down the function of the thyroid gland. This effect is worse if they are menopausal, where the isoflavones in soy milk may cause symptoms such as fatigue, constipation and general body aches, according to Larrian Gillespie, author of 'The Menopause Diet'. Such women have reported reduced intensity of these symptoms upon reducing or completely stopping the intake of soy milk and other soy products.
  • While there are claims that soy milk may increase the risk of breast cancer in women, studies regarding the same are inconclusive. Yes, excess estrogen in the female body is likely to have several negative effects, but opposing studies show that the risk of breast cancer was reduced in women who consumed moderate amounts of soy milk regularly. However, these studies are not completely reliable because they were conducted on a small group of women, spanning the same age group and health condition. Finally, the study was conducted on Asian women, whose physiology is different than that of Western women. The reduced risk of breast cancer may be attributed to other elements in their diet that were not taken into consideration while making the comparison. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, consuming soy milk may stimulate breast cancer in women who already had breast cancer. Though more research need to confirm this issue.
  • Apart from this, studies have shown that excess consumption of soy milk may cause heavier menstrual bleeding and could result in weight gain.
  • Research conducted on rats has shown that excessive consumption of soy milk and other soy products may also cause infertility. Hence, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should consult their doctor before taking soy milk.
To Men
  • Certain links have been made between soy milk consumption and reduced levels of testosterone. However, according to a research done at the University of Oxford to study the relation between soy milk and the sex hormone levels of 696 men with wide range of soy intake, it was found that soy milk was not associated with serum sex hormone concentration.
  • According to a research conducted by University of Maryland Medical Center, people with any type of kidney disease should consult their nephrologist before having any soy product, as soy has more phosphorous and potassium than meat and poultry products which may be harmful for your kidney.
  • In rare cases, men have also reported breast tenderness due to excess consumption, and reduced effects of the same condition upon limiting or entirely stopping the intake of soy milk.
  • The effect of reduced thyroid function may affect men, thereby putting them at a risk of developing hypothyroidism.
To Children

A large number of health experts are against giving infants soy-based formulas as compared to breast milk or cow's milk formulas. The reason for this again is the presence of phytoestrogens in soy, which when given to kids at such a tender age can be dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is now taking several measures to prevent any potential dangers of soy milk to children, and recommends giving children cow's milk formulas as the first alternative to breast milk. A study conducted in 2008 by this organization states that soy milk may be given to children only if it is medically necessary or as recommended by the pediatrician.

Another review in the same year by the AAP also suggested that soy-based formulas may not necessarily be harmful to little ones. Developmental biologists however, beg to differ. Studies conducted on rodents have proven that in some cases, feeding soy-based formulas which contain the isoflavone called genistein to infants, may affect their brain development.

According to Organic Consumers Association, government bodies like Israeli Health Ministry, French Food Agency, British Dietetic Association, etc., have warned parents to avoid giving any soy infant formula or soy milk to the infants and children under 18 years of age.

All in all, while no consensus has arrived on the ill-effects of soy milk on children, scientists and health experts still suggest limiting its provision to little ones. The best option after mother's milk should be dairy milk.

The Big Question

Why Doesn't Soy Milk Have the Same Effect on our Far East Asian Counterparts?

The claim that soy is good for all of us because the Chinese and Japanese have been consuming it for over a thousand years has little evidence to back it. And there are several reasons to prove why soy doesn't affect them as badly as it is claimed to affect people in Western countries:
  • Studies that have shown that Far East Asian women have lowered risk of breast cancer due to consumption of soy products did not completely control their diets. As such, other foods were included that may have altered the findings of the research.
  • The diet of the Asians does not include only soy. Moreover, they rarely consume soy milk; rather, they consume fermented forms of soy such as natto, miso and tempeh, which are believed to be much healthier forms of soy than soy milk.
  • Lifestyle and other dietary elements along with genetic makeup are not taken into account when we compare people from Western countries to their Far East Asian counterparts. The Western lifestyle is greatly different from that followed in the Far East. We cannot conclusively state that soy milk (or the lack of it) is the only factor that contributes to the development of thyroid, cancer, or altered brain function.
There are also numerous benefits of soy milk due to which it has been touted as a healthy food by the USFDA. When consumed in small amounts, soy milk can actually help those trying to battle high cholesterol levels and can aid heart health. In simple terms, one may not be able to guarantee the effectiveness of packaged soy milk, though a lot of people claim to have benefited from consuming it regularly. Mark Messina, PhD; author of 'The Simple Soybean and Your Health', suggests that consuming up to one cup of soy milk daily will not do any harm to your health. Remember however, to control the amount of other soy foods you eat in conjunction with soy milk to monitor your intake and prevent any of the aforementioned dangers.

Disclaimer: This Buzzle article is for informative purposes only and does not, in any way, intend to replace the advice of a medical expert.