I still remember cruising along the dairy aisles when I was still in school and there would only be one brand of soy milk available (this was quite a while ago). Usually, there was plenty of it. No one really wanted to buy it because it tasted odd… I'm being kind. Their words were often much worse and far more descriptive. But I'm picking on soy milk here.
Obviously soy comes in many forms: tofu, seitan, and many meat analogs–foods like Boca and Gardenburgers–and of course plan old soybeans. Today, there are so many dairy alternative options, and food manufacturers continue to improve the taste of soy milk and other non-dairy varieties.
How Soy Milk Compares to Dairy and Other Dairy Alternatives
If we were to compare rice, coconut, or soy milk to cow’s milk from a nutrient perspective, we see that soy milk comes closest. Calorically, soy milk is slightly more calories per serving when compared to cow's milk. From a nutrients perspective, in addition to calories, we only tend to focus on 2 other nutrients in cow’s milk: protein and calcium. If you were to drink non-flavored soy milk (no vanilla or chocolate added), the amount of protein per serving will be close to cow’s milk. But soy milk is often lower in calcium unless during manufacturing they add extra calcium (which is called “fortification”).
If we were to compare almond milk to cow’s milk, almond milk may be lower in calories, protein, and calcium. Coconut milk is usually higher calories (because of the higher fat content) and lower in calcium and protein when compared to cow’s milk.
So it does in fact appear that soy is probably the closest to cow’s milk when we think about it in the context of calories and protein, but may be lower in calcium depending on whether the companies fortify their soy milk with it.
Are There Benefits to Drinking Soy Milk?
You know me–I like to look at what the research says–so let’s dive in.
Some studies have found that consuming soy early in life may lower the risk of breast cancer later. There are also some data that suggest that consuming soy products may lower bad cholesterol levels (also called “LDL-cholesterol”) in the blood. Soy may have these health benefits because it contains compounds called isoflavones.
Isoflavones are found in many plant-based foods (soy, of course, being one of them). You can also find them in other beans and legumes. It’s thought that these isoflavones reduce inflammation in the body. This is a good thing, because when we’re stressed, or are sick, or have a chronic disease, the body is experiencing some inflammation.
Think of this inflammation like a fire. When you’re really sick, like with a bad case of the flu, there is often lots of inflammation, which is why you may have a sore throat, a runny nose, muscle pain, run a fever, etc. This is all caused by the body trying to fight off the flu. These symptoms are a result of inflammation and in this case, the inflammation is like a raging fire. Eventually, that fire will be extinguished and our symptoms will go away.
But sometimes we can have lower grade inflammation that goes on for years and years. For example, those that suffer from a lot of stress may have low grade inflammation for years if they don’t manage to cope with their stress. Think of this like a small campfire that never gets put out. It just continues to burn. Eventually that slow burn will start to damage the body.
Isoflavones act like a fire extinguisher. They can help reduce this inflammation in the body. Sure enough, when we look at the research, isoflavones found in soy may help protect the health of our blood vessels (like our arteries), may promote bone health, and even prevent dementia.
Are There Risks Associated with Drinking Soy Milk?
A couple of common concerns often come up: soy milk's affecting estrogen levels and interference with thyroid conditions.
Soy Milk and Estrogen
As far as soy isoflavones acting like estrogen in the body, we’re finding that this doesn’t seem to be the case. I know that guys often worry about consuming soy products because they are afraid of the estrogen-like effects, but have no fear. Researchers have even gone so far to study women
who have had a history of breast cancer and see whether consuming soy makes them feel worse or whether they increase their risk of having their cancer come back. It turns out that consuming soy may actually decrease the risk for having a recurrence of breast cancer.
Soy Milk and Thyroid Conditions
What about those with thyroid conditions? Consuming soy products does not lead to thyroid problems. But, for those that have a diagnosed thyroid condition and are taking medications for it, it is wise to avoid consuming soy-based foods around the same time you take your thyroid meds. It’s possible it may interfere with the drug’s effectiveness.
Genetically Modified Soy
Then, there’s issue of soybeans being genetically modified. At this time, we don’t know whether genetically-modified foods are helpful or harmful to our health. What we can say is that genetic modification has improved food production.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I am pro- or against genetically modified foods. Because the other argument is that when we genetically alter these foods, we end up messing with the food’s proteins on a molecular level. In turn, this may change how the body responds to the food–some may experience something similar to an allergic response. This may be because their bodies aren’t used to these proteins that are now activated in these genetically modified foods.
But I repeat: we don’t know that this is what’s going on for sure. These are just some of the theories out there.
The bottom line is that consuming soy milk, tofu, soybeans, and so on is perfectly fine for most folks. It may actually prevent many chronic diseases like certain forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and protect the health of the brain. So enjoy!