Staking their claim

If you think the current political scene is divisive, just try mentioning soy to a group of natural health practitioners. And then stand back and give them some swinging room. You might also want to wear a safety helmet.

For many years, the questions about soy’s benefits and drawbacks have raised passionate debates. And those debates intensified recently when The Solae Company (a soy protein producer) submitted a petition to the FDA, requesting that manufacturers of soy products be allowed to claim that soy consumption may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

That’s a pretty tall claim. And some are saying that there’s no merit to it. But others go even further, claiming that soy intake may actually increase cancer risk.

Battleground states have got nothing on this face off.

Interested party

In a press release about the FDA petition, The Solae Company describes itself as “a leader in the research of soy protein.” And it’s true; Solae does research soy protein. In fact, Solae researchers spent three years conducting an analysis of 58 studies they say supports the claim that soy protein-based foods reduce the risk of breast, prostate and colon cancer.

But Solae isn’t exactly a modest little mom’n’pop operation just trying to make a go of it in a competitive marketplace. And when it comes to research, the folks at Solae certainly don’t represent a disinterested party. Solae is one of the world’s largest soy producers, co-owned by Bunge Limited (an international agribusiness giant), and DuPont. In other words, they’re big. And they’re playing for keeps. And if the FDA allows them to make the claim that soy helps prevent cancer, just imagine what that could do for soy products sales.

Solae executives have imagined that very thing, and by their own estimate soy profits could easily double if the FDA gives a green light to the cancer claim.

The proof is in the processing

By and large, soy has a reputation as a health food. But that reputation has been changing over the past few years.

In the e-Alert “Adult Swim” (4/16/03), HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., expressed his doubts about soy, saying, “When you take the basic components of the soybean, and then add to that the modern procedures of cultivation and mass production, you have a highly processed food of dubious nutritional value.”

But Dr. Spreen’s soy reservations are mild compared to those of Kaayla T. Daniel, Ph.D., author of the book “The Whole Soy Story” (scheduled for publication later this year). Dr. Daniel states that soy protein may actually help cause and accelerate cancer growth. About Solae’s FDA petition, the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) quotes Dr. Daniel in a press release: “Solae was highly selective in its choice of evidence and biased in its interpretations. It omitted many studies that show soy to be ineffective in preventing cancer, emphasized favorable outcome in studies when results were mixed and excused results of a few unfavorable studies”

Formula for disaster

It’s not surprising that the Weston A. Price Foundation would weigh in on this topic. Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D., of the WAPF have been two of the most outspoken critics of soy for many years. (It should be noted that WAPF – a nutrition education and research group – is pro-raw dairy.)

On the WAPF web site (westonaprice.org) I found a page containing the abstracts of 56 studies conducted between 1971 and 2003, which serve as something of a rebuttal to Solae’s analysis of 58 studies. (That page is not designed to be an actual rebuttal; the WAPF list was originally compiled two years ago.) Among the conclusions of the 56 studies: Soy protein intake was significantly associated with elevated stomach cancer mortality rate in men, and colorectal cancer mortality rates in both sexes. Soy products have also been shown to depress thyroid function, which may prompt cancer of the thyroid.

But what’s arguably even more worrying than the cancer outcomes are the studies that show numerous health hazards linked to the consumption of soy-based baby formula. For instance, a normal daily intake of soy formula delivers the same amount of estrogen contained in five birth control pills. The result: an alarming number of girls under the age of ten are showing signs of puberty, while male infants experience testosterone levels as high as those of an adult male.

A bit of a stretch

There’s a good chance that Solae executives don’t really expect the FDA to allow them to make their reduced cancer risk claims. Just by petitioning the FDA they’ve given a higher profile to their analysis of 58 studies, while planting the idea that soy may be a cancer preventive. And if the FDA denies their petition, no harm done – the soy industry can still say that the FDA has reviewed 58 studies that support the cancer claim.

The FDA is expected to respond to the petition before the end of the year, and I’ll keep you posted on the outcome. Until then, I’ll leave you with this note from Dr. Jonathan Wright, M.D., who advises his patients and readers to restrict their soy consumption to no more than three servings per week until the soy debate is better resolved.

Sources:
“FDA Reviews Health Claim Petition Regarding Reduction in Cancer Risk” The Solae Company, Press Release, PR Newswire, 4/16/04, findarticles.com
“Health Experts Urge FDA To Deny Soy Protein Cancer Prevention Health Claim” Weston A. Price Foundation, Press Release, 7/5/04, westonaprice.org
“Studies Showing Adverse Effects of Dietary Soy, 1971-2003″ Weston A. Price Foundation” westonaprice.org