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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 11/18/2010

A soy buffet, but is that a good thing?

By Andrea Sachs

At a recent reception held on Capitol Hill, the secret ingredient was . . . soy.

No big shocker, considering the sponsor of the event was the Soyfoods Association of North America. But what I found surprising was the lack of obvious soy: no cubes of tofu coated in barbecue sauce or bowls brimming with peel-your-own edamame. To detect the soy, I needed sharper taste buds, or a culinary guide.

For a tour of the nibbles table, I approached Patricia Greenberg, a chef and cookbook author (example, “The Whole Soy Cookbook”) who assists the organization with menu planning and recipes, including this special event. The 50-year-old Los Angeleno with flawless skin, shiny hair and a marathon runner’s physique started from the left corner of the buffet, opposite the two-piece orchestra.

Pointing to a metal tray where meatballs bobbed in tomato sauce, she explained that the golfball-size orbs were half soy sausage, half real beef. “The 50/50 is a nice way to introduce soy” to non-soy eaters, said Greenberg, who suggested tossing the meatballs on spaghetti, in casseroles or between two halves of a sandwich roll and calling it a sloppy Joe.

She then moved on to a medley of aromatic basmati and wild rices mixed with steamed edamame, dried apricots and cranberries, and a drizzle of citrus vinaigrette. My heart felt healthier just looking at it. Fruit kabobs were paired with a soy yogurt spread, and in the spirit of DIY food, a make-your-own taco stand featured seasoned textured vegetable protein (TVP) chicken, soy sour cream and salsa, where a stray piece of shredded soy cheddar had jumped bowls. To save the group from washing one more dish, a dip of whipped tofu, red bell peppers and pimentos nestled inside a hollowed-out loaf of pumpernickel. And for dessert, a multi-tiered tray held aloft coin-size chocolate chip cookies with soy nuts. “They have more oomph than walnuts and pecans,” said Greenberg.

Regarding this feast before me, I started imagining how, after consuming this punch of protein, I was going to become an Olympic elliptical rider at the gym. I also knew that soy helped against bone loss and alleviated menopausal symptoms. But before I started for the serving spoons, I also took into consideration soy’s dark side. That cookie might not be so sweet.

To understand the controversy over soy’s health benefits, I contacted (post-reception) Lisa Young, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. In the simplest terms, she explained that soy contains properties that mimic estrogen and that too much of the hormone can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as breast. When I asked her how much soy was safe, she threw out the magic amount of “in moderation.”

For high-risk women, she recommends eating soy in its purest form — tofu, tempeh, soybeans — a few times a week and fully avoiding processed soy foods, such as veggie burgers, soy chips, fake bacon, etc. Individuals without such sensitivities should follow the same advice, though they can safely incorporate processed soy into their diet. Her final warning, though: “Processed is processed.”

Armed with this knowledge, I will approach the next soy-spiked party a little differently. I might have a smaller gob of soy yogurt dip on my strawberry and skip the sour cream on the TVP chicken taco. And I will eat only one cookie instead of two — wait, make that only two, not three.

-- Andrea Sachs

By Andrea Sachs  | November 18, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Tags:  Andrea Sachs  
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1. Your expert obviously missed the 2 new encouraging studies about soy and breast cancer:

2. A soy buffet provided by the Soyfoods Association was most likely meant to introduce you to the types of foods you can make with soy and not to inform you to eat that way at every snack and meal from then on (though, like any interest group, I'm sure they'd love that.)

Posted by: sarahabc | November 19, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

Oh, honestly. If even high-risk women are considered safe eating tofu a tempeh a few times a *week* (whereas fast food and dessert are to be reserved for a few times a *month*) that larger dollop of soy yogurt isn't going to hurt you. There's an enourmous difference between eating a soy-heavy buffet and eating a daily diet high in soy. But thanks for helping even a one-time indulgence in soy seem ominous! I promise your hormone-riddled cow's milk is more dangerous than the phytoestrogens in soy.

Posted by: Fizziks | November 19, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

How are those two studies encouraging? They only suggest positive attributes of soy and its relationship to breast cancer. They also suggest possible negative attributes. Read the whole articles, and you'll see the only thing encouraging about these articles, is that researchers are taking the time to further explore how diet can influence cancer incidence and recurrence.

Posted by: foody | November 19, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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