Mary Ellen Kuhn

Soy PlantSoy foods have been consumed for centuries and have been linked to a variety of health benefits. But they have also sometimes been labeled as unhealthy by anti-soy activists. Earlier this fall, soy researcher Mark Messina, Executive Director of the Soy Nutrition Institute, sat down with a group of editors who gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, for a “Farm to Fork Celebration” sponsored by the Soyfoods Council and plant genetics company Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

“At the same time that soy has taken a hit, there is more evidence that soy has no negative health effects,” said Messina. Not only that, Messina contended, but as a healthful source of plant-based protein, soy can play a valuable role in the diet. In addition to the high-quality protein content, nutritional advantages of soy foods include the fact that they are nutrient-dense; are low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat; and are a source of omega-3 fatty acids.

“It’s a really good food,” Messina said. He recommends consuming 2–3 servings of soy daily for everyone except those with a soy allergy. “There is no downside, and there are some intriguing potential benefits,” he continued.

Soy’s heart health benefits are well documented. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein in 1999. Research has further demonstrated that soy favorably affects a variety of coronary heart disease risk factors other than high cholesterol, Messina wrote in a column featured in the 2010 Soyfoods Guide distributed by the United Soybean Board. 

The exploration of soy’s health benefits has frequently focused on phytochemical compounds in soy called isoflavones. The fact that isoflavones have some estrogen-like effects prompted concerns that soy foods might be contraindicated for women who are at increased risk of breast cancer as well as breast cancer patients with tumors stimulated by the hormone estrogen. Recently, however, researchers have concluded that soy foods are safe for women with breast cancer and may even reduce the risk of disease recurrence, according to Messina.

The following are some of the insights about other potential health benefits of soy that Messina shared in a presentation titled “Health Effects of Soy foods: Understanding the Science and Debunking the Myths.”

  • Breast cancer. Two decades or so ago, researchers like Messina were hopeful that soy consumption had the potential to reduce breast cancer risk. Years of research into soy and breast cancer have failed to demonstrate that adult soy consumption lessens the risk of breast cancer, but emerging data suggest that consuming soy during adolescence may substantially lower the risk of breast cancer later in life. One study among Chinese women showed a 50% reduction in risk. Findings like these lead Messina to recommend that young girls consume at least 1 serving/day of soy protein.
  • Prostate cancer. Soy’s potential to lower the risk of prostate cancer has also been carefully examined, and a number of epidemiological studies have linked soy intake to reduced prostate cancer risk. Messina explained that there is evidence that soy may be useful in preventing tumor metastasis, which could make it particularly valuable with slow-growing tumors like prostate cancer, where even a modest slowing of growth could significantly reduce mortality.
  • Skin health. According to Messina, another intriguing area of emerging research suggests that the isoflavones in soy may be good for the skin. Potential benefits include prevention of ultraviolet ray damage and improved elasticity.

Building a Better Soy Oil

2010 brought another major development in the world of soy—the debut of new Plenish high- oleic soybean oil with a nutritional profile and performance attributes superior to commodity soybean oil and other non-soy oil options.

In 2002–2003, soybean oil accounted for 79% of edible oil consumption, according to Russ Sanders of Pioneer Hi-Bred. However, by 2008–2009—after implementation of trans fat labeling requirements in 2006—soybean oil accounted for just 67% of edible oil consumption as foodservice operators and food manufacturers switched to other oils.

The new high-oleic offering was under development for decades, first at Pioneer’s parent company, DuPont, and later as a joint initiative between DuPont and Pioneer. Plenish underwent regulatory scrutiny by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture from 2006 until June 2010, when the agency announced that the genetically engineered high-oleic soybeans used for the oil could be grown under contract and the new oil could be tested by food companies. Pioneer Hi-Bred expects to commercialize Plenish in 2012, after full regulatory approval is received and field testing is completed.

Plenish has an oleic content of more than 75%, which is similar to olive oil, and contains 20% less saturated fat than commodity soybean oil. Its high oleic content makes it very stable during frying and manufacturing, without the need for partial hydrogenation, a process that increases stability and extends shelf life, but produces unhealthy trans fats.  

According to Bill McCullough, Director of Marketing for Bunge Oils, one of Pioneer’s processing and distribution partners for Plenish, the high-oleic oil also reduces foodservice operators’ maintenance and cleaning costs because it produces less polymer build-up on frying equipment than lower-stability oils. In addition, McCullough said that Plenish, which has a neutral taste, is versatile enough to be used in foodservice menu applications such as salad dressings.

Fried Foods Here to Stay
Despite consumers’ professed interest in eating more healthfully, fried foods have an enduring appeal, said McCullough, who shared findings from a 2009 report titled Future of Fried Foods from foodservice market research company Technomic.

Although more than half of the consumers in Technomic’s survey described themselves as “fried food curtailers” or “fried food avoiders,” McCullough said the study predicts that the growth rate of fried foods will decline no more substantially than the foodservice industry overall. He cited the following survey findings, which suggest that fried foods will continue to hold their own in the marketplace.

  • On average, 42% of males and females strongly agree that the smell of fried foods can create a craving.
  • Impulse is a major driver of fried food sales, with about one in five consumers (21%) saying that their purchases of fried food at restaurants are usually made on impulse.
  • About one-third of respondents (32%) said they like to order fried foods at restaurants because they do not normally prepare them at home.

Not coincidentally, the “Farm to Fork Celebration” featured an assortment of impossible-to-resist fried appetizers (many featuring soy ingredients), which were made under the supervision of Chef Christopher Koetke, Dean of the School of Culinary Arts of Kendall College in Chicago.

Mary Ellen Kuhn is Managing Editor of Food Technology ([email protected]).