Q: Is soy safe for kids? I hear mixed information.
Yes, soybeans and soy products are safe for kids. Contrary to some outdated misinformation recirculating on the internet, soy is not a dangerous food. In fact, a high intake of soy early in life is associated with lower cancer risk later. It also contains isoflavones, a type of plant-based nutrient called a phytonutrient, that gives plant-foods their colors and unique health benefits. Soy protein is rich in high-quality protein, and when fortified, it provides calcium and vitamin D essential for your children’s growing bones. Plus, soy offers healthy fat, which supports your child’s heart health.
Why does soy get a bad rap?
So why is soy perceived as controversial? It’s because isoflavones act similarly to estrogen in the body. Since they bind to estrogen receptors, it was previously speculated that soy might change the body’s natural hormone levels. However, this is not true. Plant isoflavones can help to balance the body’s naturally produced estrogen stores. They also protect against disease later in life, like cardiovascular disease, dementia, and various cancers.
Many soy foods are genetically modified. If you’re concerned about consuming GMO foods, choose soy labeled organic or non-GMO. By substituting soy for some of the animal foods in your diet, you’re helping to decrease your carbon footprint.
How to eat soy foods
Incorporating soy into your child’s snacks and meals is a great way to boost their intake of plant-based protein and iron. Soy protein contains all nine essential amino acids the body needs, and it’s rich in the amino acid leucine, which can bolster muscle growth. To reap the most benefits, try giving your child a soy-based snack after exercise or following their big game.
How much soy is okay to eat?
Choosing a variety of plant-based proteins ensures you’re getting different color benefits from diverse phytonutrients. So, switch up soy with other beans and lentils. Soy is safe for children of all ages. When it comes to infants, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that it’s safe to introduce soy to infants with baby’s first foods. This may prevent soy allergies from developing. Luckily, most soy allergies usually disappear around the age of seven. Allergic reactions are generally mild and don’t require emergency care.
Soy products are abundant in the market: tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soymilk. What’s the difference? Each soy-based product differs in its level of processing. Learn the soy-lingo and be prepared for your next trip to the grocery store.
- Edamame: baby soybeans that can be eaten straight from the pod—tasty with soy sauce or your favorite spices
- Soy nuts: roasted mature soybeans with a crunchy texture—sweet and savory mixed with raisins
- Soymilk: made from soaked soybeans that have been ground, boiled, and filtered—delicious in smoothies
- Tofu: coagulated soymilk that’s been pressed into blocks of varying textures—yummy breaded as tofu nuggets
- Tempeh: a tender product made from ground, fermented, and pressed soybeans—delicious in tacos
- Miso: a refrigerated paste made from fermented soybeans—perfect as a warm broth
- Soy sauce: liquid seasoning that’s been extracted from fermented soybeans—offers that umami taste to balance out a dish
- Textured soy protein: small granules made from protein that have been isolated from soybeans—great for cutting the meat content by half in burger recipes
When browsing the freezer aisle, you’ll find that soy is made into just about anything. Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, and cheese—you name it! But, with all of these different adaptations comes significant processing. Out of all the soy products, soy-based meat substitutes go through the most extensive processing. They also have fewer beneficial isoflavones, and generally include extra additives, salt, and sugar. For optimal phytonutrient intake, opt for less processed forms such as tofu, soymilk, tempeh, edamame, and soy nuts, and consume soy “meats” in moderation. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a delicious soy burger or soy bacon (popular at our home), but more often, choose soy closest to nature without a surplus of additives.
It can take a while before kids are willing to try a new food. Be patient and use your creativity. There are tons of tasty ways to eat soy with your kids! For tofu newbies, choose extra firm tofu, and crumble into your favorite recipes in place of ground turkey or beef. Edamame (a popular snack in my household) makes an easy and delicious microwavable snack. Try finding it in the freezer aisle.
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Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian and founder of superkidsnutrition.com, the first kids’ nutrition expert website, and creator of the Super Crew®, who get their powers from healthy colorful foods. Check out her books for kids and families: Healthy Eating for Families, the Ultimate Guide for Kids, Parents, and Educators, the Super Crew’s Breakfast Cookbook for Kids, 50 Tasty Recipes, and 100+ Fun Nutrition Activities, and her Plant-Based Boost books for adults. Melissa spoke at this year’s Beyond the Lunchbox about “Using Parenting Styles to Make Fun and Tasty Plant-Based Meals for Kids.”