Soy: Natural Antimicrobial Agent or Endocrine Disruptor?

Related articles

Soybeans legumesSoybeans are common in cooking oil, margarine and any number of canned foods, and for that reason they have been the target of criticism. On one point of the fringe triangle, homeopaths like Joe Mercola insist soy derivatives are endocrine-disrupting compounds; those phytoestrogens behave as weak estrogen mimics or as antiestrogens. And then on another triangle point, anti-science activists insist soy must be bad because it's a genetically modified food.

Yet there is another point to think about. A new study says there is a good reason to use more soy: Isoflavones and peptides in the warm-weather legumes may inhibit the growth of microbial pathogens, like Listeria and Pseudomonas, that cause food-borne illnesses, and they do it better than synthetic additives which currently protect foods. Isoflavones act as hormones and control much of the biological activity on the cellular level, while peptides are part of proteins, and can act as hormones, hormone producers or neurotransmitters.

Maybe natural is better for marketing purposes, but is this a problem that really needs to be fixed? North America has the safest food in the world, but even so about 48 million people in the U.S. suffer from some sort of food-borne illness every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Heavy use of chemical antimicrobial agents has caused some strains of bacteria to become very resistant to them, rendering them ineffective for the most part," said engineering professor Suresh Neethirajan, director of the BioNano Laboratory at University of Guelph, in its statement. "Soy peptides and isoflavones are biodegradable, environmentally friendly and non-toxic. The demand for new ways to combat microbes is huge, and our study suggests soy-based isoflavones and peptides could be part of the solution."

The next step is for researchers to conduct large-scale tests. The word "synthetic" may be an easy way to suggest a natural alternative is better, but synthetic versions only came into existence because the natural version was not getting the job done. And how will activist groups and readers of Mother Earth News react when the natural alternative to synthetic is based on science?