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Meatless Mondays Part 5: Tofu – friend or foe?

Meatless Mondays Part 5: Tofu – friend or foe?

What is soy milk... is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?

When first switching to a meatless diet, the transition can be easier if you just replace meat products with meat substitutes, like tofu and TVP, as they often can be prepared in a similar way to your favourite meat products.

Soy products form the basis for a lot of commercially available vegetarian and vegan products, so it must be good for us… right? There has been much controversy over the healthfulness of tofu and other soy products, with pros and cons on both sides. Let’s have a quick look at the debate to help you decide whether tofu and soy products are right for you.

Does soy cause or prevent nasty health conditions?

One of the main arguments against eating soy products is that they can cause diseases, such as cancer. This view is based on the presence of isoflavones, plant-based compounds with ‘antioxidant and estrogen activity’, in soy derivatives. As the chemical structure of isoflavones and human estrogen is similar, many have drawn conclusions based on soy’s effect on hormones in the body. Scientific studies are yet to prove any negative ramifications of soy consumption, however many positive links have been drawn between isoflavones and health conditions affected by estrogen levels.

Isoflavones may have a short term ability to reduce symptoms associated with menopause, however long-term effects are unknown and there may be a potential for soy isoflavones to increase the likelihood of breast tumour recurrence in breast cancer survivors. There is as yet no evidentiary support for soy negatively affecting cardiovascular disease, endocrine function, bone health, menstrual cycles, kidney or cognitive function – in short, more extensive, long-term research is necessary to retrieve more definitive results.

Isn’t soy genetically-modified/bad for the environment?

American soy crops are over 90% genetically modified, and Australian soy is similarly modified to require less herbicides or insecticides. As soy in used in many processed foods- particularly as an oil, flour or emulsifier- you may find imported GM soy in a variety of confectionary, bread products, mayonnaise and margarine. While GM labelling laws require food products containing GM ingredients to be labelled, there are loopholes that allow many manufacturers to include soy without adequate labelling.

Due to the versatility of soybeans, it has become a dominant agricultural crop worldwide, particularly in South America. In order for soy plantations to expand, deforestation occurs to make room for the spread of monoculture. This process has serious environmental impacts– namely a reduction in biodiversity, loss of animal habitats, soil erosion, pollution and climate change. There are also social implications to consider, including worker exploitation and employment loss for small farmers and communities.

So what soy products are preferable?

In short, whole fermented non-GM organic (preferably Australian) soy products are the way to go. The fermentation process makes soy easier for us to digest, and adds probiotics and nutrients for an added health kick. Look for fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh and natto- some tofu and soy milk are also fermented, but do your homework first to find a brand that meets your needs.

Until more research is conducted into the long-term effects of these newly-created ingredients, it’s advisable to avoid any processed soy products, particularly soy junk foods– think soy cheese, ice cream, oils, and many highly processed meat substitutes like TVP.


Tune in next Monday for the final article in my #meatlessmondays series- ‘…But how do you get your protein?’

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