Fields and fields of soybeans spread across America's heartland making soy foods readily available and helping to put them among the hottest food items on today's market.
Another major reason is better health. Vegetarians are choosing soy and other advocates say eating soy products helps the heart, bones, and your overall health.
Certainly statistics tell us that Japanse chef Hiroaki Shiokawa is likely to live longer by following a traditional Oriental diet with considerable soy. He owns a restaurant, Daruma of Japan in Virginia Beach, Va. He showed CBN News the preparation of a number of soy dishes.
The Japanese average a serving or two of soy each day. They don't consume soy to get protein, but more as part of the variety in cuisine they practice. Very few Japanese are vegetarians, they consume large quantities of fish.
Dr. Kaayla Daniel, nutritionist and author of The Whole Soy Story, says many people overdo soy, especially vegetarians. She's most worried about products like highly processed soy drink mixes, energy and protein bars, and factory-made soy milk with lots of additives.
She says these foods can be hard on the thyroid which controls the body's energy levels and the pancreas which controls blood sugar. Damage to either organ can lead to serious consequences like hypothyroidism and diabetes.
Daniel finds soy-based infant formulas a particular disaster. For instance, soy interferes with the absorption of the crucial mineral calcium.
"Soy formula is supplemented with inferior oils, inferior sugars, and there are many, many deficiencies for the baby," she said.
Daniel says her greatest concern for babies is the level of plant estrogens in soy.
"These babies are getting a very high dose of estrogen. Admittedly plant estrogens are not the same as human estrogens. The problem is that they're close enough to fool the body," she added.
Those substances mimic the female hormone estrogen and could be a serious problem for boys. In the first months of life, boys have a testosterone hormone surge.
That surge actually programs the body for puberty, sexual development, and masculine behavior. Consequently, soy estrogens may delay puberty and produce brains more like a woman's.
Brain expert Dr. Russell Blaylock calls it "feminizing the brain."
While boys may be pushed away from masculinity, girls could be driven to an almost hyperfeminization. That is, augmenting girls' own estrogen with soy estrogen may lead to premature breast development and menstrual periods.
In addition to the social consequences, premature puberty is known to lead to more obesity and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Black children are more commonly put on soy because of milk intolerance. Daniel says that may explain why almost 50 percent of black girls face early puberty.
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics states, "Healthy full-term infants should be given soy formula only when medically necessary." With soy formulas pulling in 25 percent of the formula market, some physicians find that percentage too high to qualify as "necessary."
Another issue is that products like soy formula and processed soy hardly resemble the original soy bean. That even extends to other proteins.
"Whenever there is a powdering process or whenever we're talking about something like soy protein isolate or whey protein isolate or casein, the processing creates a whole lot of problems," Daniel said.
Those problems include the creation of MSG, monosodium glutamate, and related substances. These substances can disrupt sexual development and normal weight, especially in children.
Blaylock says these "excitotoxins" can worsen brain diseases and play a role in attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity.
So why are Japanese so healthy with all of the soy in their diets? One reason is that the quantity isn't large considering the modest serving sizes.
Additionally, their soy foods are more natural and less processed. Plus they grow up being breast fed; even the infant formulas Japanese use are milk-based.
There is definite agreement that soy should be used only when it's not highly processed.
"We have some people who are on the soy 'right' where everything has to be soy," said Dr. Sunil Pai. "So they're having a soy hot dog, a soy burger with soy cheese, all the condiments are made of soy. The overprocessing of taking that much soy could be a potential problem."
Chef Shiokawa recommends soy foods like bean sprouts, tofu, cooked beans, and tempeh. There's even a sweet dessert he prepares from his homemade soy milk.
Even Daniel and her children consume some traditonal soy dishes like Japanese miso soup, but she recommends soy sparingly. She says be cautious because more research is needed to understand the health consequences.
So a little bit of soy appears just fine with certain cautions. Don't eat too much of good quality soy dishes. Lean away from foods that are overly processed and could harm health. In short, the old-fashioned ways seem to be the best for well-being.
Originally aired on March 11, 2009