Soy Foods: Hidden Sources, Health and Environmental Impact

Soy Health Impact

Soy foods are a sensitive topic to some and throughout the years, I have tried to share the best of my knowledge about soy foods so you can make an informed decision about it. I avoid soy as much as possible, not because soy – when consumed in the optimal forms (more on that below) – is a bad choice, but rather the source of soy and how it’s transformed and hiding in so many unexpected places. Are soy foods good for us and can they be part of a healthy diet?

Soy Foods: Health Impacts


Soy is a top allergen in Canada and the US, especially for children. Many kids outgrow their soy allergies, but not all do. There are also many adults who don’t have a full-blown soy allergy, but are intolerant to it.

Hormone Imbalance

Soy products have a phytoestrogenic effect, which means they mimic our own production of estrogen in the body. Though many studies show this effect can actually help prevent cancer, other evidence (and many women) cite that soy creates all kinds of hormonal issues relating to thyroid issues and severe hormonal imbalance.

Soy is an abundant source of phytoestrogens and is certainly a contributing factor because it is so ubiquitous (more on that below). You can read up on phytoestrogens here.


As a legume, soybeans can be difficult for some of us to digest. They contain enzyme inhibitors that impair our ability to absorb certain minerals like zinc, calcium and magnesium, and can impact protein digestion.

Healthwashed Soy

I’ve written about healthwashing numerous times and soy is a heavily healthwashed product. Let’s face it, most processed soy foods aren’t using organic, non-GMO soy as the source. Soy foods such as faux sausage, turkey, hot dogs and bacon are often splashed with lofty health claims but they are usually not healthy. Often, these soy foods are junk disguised as a healthy option – they are heavily processed, contain other potentially harmful ingredients like gluten, unhealthy oils, excess salt, excess or added sugar, natural flavours and preservatives.

soy foods and the environment

soy foods

There’s no question that breeding animals for food, wastes an enormous amount of natural resources and pollutes our air and waterways, and sacrifices lives. A mainly plant-based diet is far gentler on the earth.

But is soy consumption the answer to healing the planet?

Genetic Modification

Genetically modified foods like soy have a detrimental impact on the environment. They threaten biodiversity and create pollution that destroys waterways, land and wildlife. They also contribute to deforestation, as land is converted to plant more soy crops.

Unfortunately, many soy products on the market have been genetically modified. In the United States, an astounding 94% of soy crops are genetically engineered. Here in Canada, soybeans are a growing biz, too. Last year, we grew over 7.7 million metric tons of soy, mostly in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. The amount of genetically modified soy planted in Canada has been growing during the last few years – in 2019 farmers planted 2.3 million acres worth, up from 1.84 million in 2015.

So what does all this mean? It means we can’t recognize genetically modified soy as actual food, so our bodies don’t know how to digest, absorb and use it as fuel. GMO foods have also been linked to numerous health issues, including allergies, liver problems, infertility and sterility, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, kidney stones and more.

You can get the full lowdown on GMOs here for more information.

Energy Consumption

What about the energy used to transport processed foods all over the world, and all the wasteful packaging that goes along with it? I’ve certainly never seen a veggie dog that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic and cardboard. Vegan, plant-based foods like dairy-free milk, ice cream, meat alternatives, and egg substitutes have become big business. In the US alone, vegan food sales reached 3.1 billion in 2018. Of course, not all of those products are soy. However, they are going to come in a package. I’m all for eating plant-based, but better to pursue more zero waste options like fresh fruit and veggies and products you can purchase in bulk with your own plastic-free containers.

Not all soy grown is designated for human consumption, either. It’s also diverted to paint, plastics, polyurethane foam, cosmetics, personal care products, detergents and candles, all of which can seep into our environment and pollute it.

Conventionally grown soy can leach pesticides and herbicides into the ground and waterways, damaging the soil and the people who are exposed to these toxins.

Soy Foods Vs. Meat: Which Is Healthier?

There are some people who maintain that soy foods are better for our health and the health of the environment, and are the preferred option to animal products. This is not something I agree with. Both soy foods and animal products have the capacity to be unhealthy. Factory-farmed meat is detrimental to our health, for sure, which I’ve written about in more detail here. Yet mass-produced GMO soy, shaped into bacon and turkey, is a harmful Frankenfood. And I would argue it’s no better for you than hormone-ridden meat.

Organic or fermented soy, along with organic, grass-fed, pastured meat/poultry and wild fish, both have their health benefits if you choose to eat them.

The Ethics of Soy

Let’s be clear: factory farms that cage helpless animals, abuse them and pump them full of hormones and antibiotics are unequivocally inhumane and unethical. I understand that those that abide by the vegan lifestyle, for the most, do not ever allow for an exception to the belief that eating animals is wrong.  I fully understand where you are coming from.

That also doesn’t make it ethical or sustainable for our planet to be using hectares of arable land to plant soy that produces Frankenfoods, animal feed, or plastic when that land could be planted with wholesome fruits and vegetables that are edible off the land.

Is it fair to feed animals processed and genetically modified soy feed, which is definitely not part of their natural diet, but which they receive because it’s cheap and easy to grow – and massively subsidized by governments?

Is it ethical to give our children processed soy foods that have as many synthetic ingredients, preservatives and toxins as their meaty counterparts?

When we choose to consume products like tofu turkey or veggie dogs, we are contributing to the demand for fake soy foods that are detrimental to human health, animal health and the planet.

And that doesn’t sound ethical at all.

Hidden Sources of Soy

soybean oil

If you’re pan-frying a block of tofu or buying a carton of soy milk, you know that you’re consuming soy. The trouble is, there are many hidden sources of soy that contribute to excessive soy exposure in North America and in Europe, where consumers, directly and indirectly, consume 61kg of soy per year. Soy has infiltrated nearly every processed food on the shelf.

Food and products that contain or often contain soy:

  • Bean sprouts
  • Bread crumbs, cereals and crackers
  • Breaded foods
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Imitation dairy foods
  • Infant formula, follow-up formula, nutrition supplements for toddlers and children
  • Meal replacements
  • Meat products with fillers, for example, burgers and prepared ground meat products, hot dogs, cold cuts
  • Miso
  • Tofu
  • Soy nuts
  • Soy milk
  • Tempeh
  • Nutrition supplements
  • Bean curd
  • Natto
  • Okara
  • Sauces, for example, soy sauce, shoyu, tamari, teriyaki, Worcestershire
  • Simulated fish and meat products, for example, fake crab, imitation bacon bits, vegetarian burgers
  • Gravies, sauces and marinades
  • Vegetarian dishes

Other possible sources of soy:

  • Baked goods and baking mixes
  • Beverage mixes, for example, hot chocolate and lemonade
  • Canned tuna and minced hams, for example, seasoned or mixed with other ingredients for flavour
  • Chewing gum
  • Cooking spray, margarine, vegetable shortening and vegetable oil
  • Potato chips
  • Frozen desserts
  • Lecithin
  • Milled corn
  • Meat products with fillers, for example, pre-prepared hamburger patties, hotdogs and cold cuts
  • Seafood-based products and fish
  • Seasoning and spices
  • Snack foods
  • Soups, broths, soup mixes and stocks
  • Soy pasta
  • Spreads, dips, mayonnaise and peanut butter
  • Thickening agents
  • Mono-diglyceride
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) (may contain hydrolyzed protein)

If you’re trying to avoid soy in packaged foods, your best bet is to check the ingredients list on food labels.

Why we mostly hate soy & Hidden food sources of soy

Beneficial Soy Foods

Wait – soy isn’t all bad. There are a couple of kinds of soy that I feel confident eating on the rare occasion and in moderation. These products are available; organic, non-GMO and fermented or sprouted, which are chock full of probiotics, enzymes, vitamins, minerals and protein. These include:

  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Miso
  • Gluten-Free Tamari
  • Edamame
  • Whole, cooked soybeans

But here’s the thing – we don’t eat them every day at every meal. We eat them occasionally, and never in the shape of pepperoni or a turkey.

If you’re against meat for health, environmental and ethical reasons, then why eat a faux soy product that’s meant to mimic its taste and appearance? If you are all about eating plant-based foods then go for it – but don’t go making soy the hero. You can be vegetarian and vegan easily, deliciously and happily without relying on soy foods as a filler or transitional food.

Soy can definitely be part of a healthy, balanced vegetarian, vegan or omnivorous diet, but should it be consumed daily? Definitely not. Unless we actively seek out soy-free foods, there is no way to avoid them – and I do believe we are generally consuming way too much of it.

How To Use Beneficial Soy Foods






  1. i love that you wrote about this. i call all of this “food” vegan junk food! i feel the longer you are meat free the less you crave the taste and smell of these products. its amazing how marketing can blind side us into the belief that soy is healthy. people are now putting their babies on soy formulas… you think that’s as scary as i do? love your articles! peace & light

  2. Hmmm, I think you should have done some photoshop work to that photo before posting about the horror of GMO soy and specifically mentioning Tofurkey. Right on their display case in clear view reads (“Certified Non-GMO, Organic Soy). Yes I totally agree with you on many levels about the nastiness of fake soy products, but they are an excellent alternative to those just coming out of a meat eating lifestyle and making the transition to vegetarianism. When my husband and I first made the change, fake soy foods were part of our regular diet and we consumed them regularly because we honestly weren’t sure what else to eat, but as the years went by and we learned more about healthy eating and consuming mostly whole plant foods, we have soy only on a very rare occasion now. So while I think your article raises a ton of crucial points and I love your blog and insight, I still think that eating a soy based veggie burger is WAY better for our health, the animals and the earth than eating a fast food beef burger.

  3. First, you need to stop using Tofurkey as an example. As has been pointed out several times, they DO NOT USE genetically engineered foods. See here:

    Second, while it’s true that mega-farms producing GMO soy is bad for the environment, most of that soy is not going to feed humans, it’s going to feed animals. “Livestock and poultry consume more than 70 percent of the soybeans worldwide,” according to this United Soybean article: I’ve seen even higher estimates elsewhere. So it’s the demand for animal products, not Tofurkey, that fuels soy production. Go vegan, and that will drop dramatically.

  4. Hi,
    I think we need to remember that tofu, tempeh, soy milk and edamame (soy products in their nearly unprocessed state) are just beans. Like chickpeas, kidney beans they are healthy part of a wide varied diet. It’s not the beans’ fault that people have stuffed around with its genes like so many other crops. While I agree we should avoid processed soy products that have manipulated in a chemistry lab like so many other things, I think this article exaggerates the negatives without going in to any of the positives. From reading this article I see no reason why I should ever eat any soy, even the ones you say are ok. There are many thousands of peer-reviewed articles that state that soy has many beneficial impacts on our bodies compared with a hugely reduced number of studies that have shown negative impacts.

  5. I would never claim that processed soy fake meats are the healthiest choice out there, but I do believe they are a better choice than, say, the cheapest deli meats and hot dogs full of nitrites. My only point in response to the initial post was that Tofurky products ARE apparently made from organic, non-GMO soy, and that there are many, many other companies making far worse products and going to greater lengths to health wash them. Of all the companies and products to vilify, this would not be the first one I would choose, is all.

    Secondly, your choice of reference for evidence about the health risks of GMO foods is Dr. Merkola, who bases little of his claims on scientific research. I am happy to read anything you can provide that is actually based on peer-reviewed data, but Merkola is not a reliable resource. Do you have any other evidence?

  6. I think it’s valuable to point out that soy (and soy products) often help people make a transition out of an animal-based diet. But I agree that quality soy products should be *part* of a balanced plant diet.
    I read in The China Study, too, that if young girls eat soy regularly (I forget how often) before the age of 16, that soy helps to protect them from breast cancer. But, again, you can’t take this factoid in isolation. The populations in this study also ate a really healthy, plant-based diet, light on animal products.
    Wondering if you have thoughts on this, Meghan.

  7. This entire article is vitriolic and antagonistic, while making rather egregious claims that ignore the facts.

    I’m not a defender of GMO by any means, and I disagree with the use of GMO across the board, but you are equating all GMO, and then making some unfounded insinuations. You say “It means we can’t recognize genetically modified soy as actual food, so our bodies don’t know how to digest, absorb and use it as fuel. ” This simply isn’t true. Genetic engineers change the DNA slightly to bring about a desired change. The protein structures often don’t change, but the cellular response to a given input might. There are GMOs that are developed to be drought resistant by altering the DNA slightly, then there’s GMOs that are insecticide resistant because jellyfish DNA was spliced into it. They are very different, and have very different effects on the organism overall.

    The phytoestrogenic effects of soy have been documented only in extremely large, sustained quantities. Limited exposure does not generate these issues.

    Soy is a far more ethical and environmentally friendly choice than meat alternatives, regardless of it is GMO or organic. You’ve got a 10:1 ratio of feed to output for general livestock, plus all the additional waste effluent and massive water consumption. Compare that to 1 or 2:1 for soy. All of your arguments against processed soy hold against any meat product, processed or otherwise.

    I’m not saying soy is perfect. After all, we’re seeing more and more amazon rainforest get cut down for soy crops. But if you’re eating organic soy (hopefully Canadian sourced) in moderation, then what’s the issue? You’re not separating the good from the bad, and making sweeping claims about both.

  8. This is a very rich and important topic that I personally seek to learn about more on a regular basis. With respect to soy and breast cancer, as an oncology nurse, I can tell you that the causes of breast cancer are complex and poorly understood. Hormones play a huge role but it is unclear why or how. Soybeans have both an estrogen mimicking effect and an estrogen blocking effect so it is difficult to conclude whether a moderate amount of soy intake is preventative of breast cancer. I can relate to those who say that soy based products served as good transition foods; when I became vegetarian years ago I also used fake soy meats to enhance my diet. I didn’t know any better and now that I do, I would never recommend that someone transitioning to a veg/vegan diet use processed soy products. The packaging alone is enough to deter it’s consumption. Whether the beans are GMO or not is irrelevant when I cannot even recognize the rest of the ingredients on the package. My last point, which will likely bother many, is that I do not agree that the consumption of animal products is detrimental to the earth. I think that the modern practices of raising and slaughtering animals are deplorable, unsustainable and wreaking havoc on our earth. For that reason I applaud those who raise their animals humanely, feed them the food that they are meant to eat and humanely take them from their life to their death so that we can eat. Eating meat is not inhumane, it has been a part of humanity’s survival for generations. Ethically raised animals can be part of an ecologically sustainable farm providing land aeration and fertilizer which in turn permits topsoil development and plant growth. What is inhumane is that people eat such large quantities of factory raised meat without thinking about how the animal got to the grocery store/table/restaurant. The boycott of both soy based products and animals raised on soy feed is a powerful way to tell those responsible for food production what we want. Thanks Sondi for bringing light to this important issue and stimulating a very important discussion :)

  9. I agree with Anita, above, that we need to emphasize that select soy products can be *part* (and only a small part!) of a balanced plant diet. Too many vegetarians or mostly-vegetarians eat soy components daily or at nearly every meal (soy milk on breakfast cereal, soy latte and soy crisp granola bar on the go, tofu stir-fry at lunch, soy yogurt for an afternoon snack, soy chicken strip fajitas with “vegan sour cream” (soy) for supper, and edamame while watching a movie… See how easy it was to fill a day with seemingly-healthy vegan soy products? And that’s not including the modified soy products in crackers, chocolate, etc.).

    Is this better than a varied meat diet? (Let’s see: cow’s milk on cereal, whole-grain oats&honey granola bar on the go, tuna at lunch, greek yogurt for afternoon snack, chicken and cheese fajitas for supper, buttered popcorn while watching a movie…) I don’t think so, and so I have removed the “hidden” sources of regular soy – like soy-based imitations of dairy and meat products – from my vegan kitchen, and I watch out for them when I’m on the go.

    I would argue that ANY diet that has so much focus on one thing outside of the green vegetable category is problematic. In addition to heavy processing, additives and GMOs, the danger with soy is that many people (vegetarians and ominvores alike) don’t think they’re eating nearly as much of it as they are! After all, Canada’s food guide has “soy milk” under the “dairy” category and “tofu” under the “meats and alternates” category as if they’re two different foods! But don’t get me started on the food guide…

    So, I agree with Anita, and with Sondi and Meghan, that occasional soy, say, a couple meals per week, in low-processed forms, can be *part* of a healthy diet. But just like I wouldn’t recommend having beef jerky, beef broth soup, a steak sandwich, and a hamburger as your typical daily fare (even if they were from local grass-fed beef sources), nor will I advocate for filling your diet with soy milk, tofurky and soy cream cheese, or even daily tempeh and edamame (same goes for pervasive corn and wheat products). Variety is the spice of life; branch out and enjoy it!

  10. What about edamame? Shouldn’t the list of “good” soy foods include organic, non-GMO edamame? It’s the least processed of all.

  11. I am far from being an expert on anything relating to being vegan or vegetarian, as I am just starting to transition. BUT, I think I’m quite the expert at gluten free. My diagnosis 11 years ago led me to the place where I read EVERYTHING on the label, regardless of whether is says gluten free or not.

    The biggest trap I got into with gluten free, was to try and replace the food I was missing. Big mistake. It led me to gain weight and almost feel worse at times because I was not eating real food. I think the same goes for anyone trasitioning to vegan or vegetarian. Replacing real food with non-food is not the answer in any situation. Yes, beans are beans, but not when it’s messed with, overprocessed, or combined with ridiculous sounding additives.

    Wheat is an additive commonly used in these soy based products, which deterred me from buying them out of convenience. For that, I am extremely grateful. There are a few medical issues that have come to light very recently that have made my decision to completely steer away from soy, so I am again, very grateful that I have not made it a crutch in my meals.

    Gosh, complete, whole, clean food is so amazing why mess with it?!

  12. Is soy really an ethical choice? —- fantastic article, and great conversation happening!

  13. Ah, but the list of myths here for the most part dealt with “better” not “best.” So, is it a myth that soy products are *better* than real meat, for my health and for the environment? In my opinion, no, it is not a myth — they ARE better. They are not THE best, or THE healthiest, but they are BETTER. i.e., healthier, and more ethical than eating meat and supporting the meat industry.

  14. I have the same problem, my kids generally won’t eat legumes. But they do love organic edamame, have you tried that? I boil them and toss them with sea salt and call them “pop out” beans and the kids love popping them out of the pod. They’ll gobble them down.

  15. Meghan I love the debate that you inspire with your posts, people here have strong opinions but seem open minded.

    I do not want to eat any GMO and it was actually the reason for me making a huge change in my life. I realized it was practically impossible to get away from GMO corn and started eating less and less processed food, because the organic processed food is expensive and well cooking is cheaper!

  16. […] wheat gluten (see seitan, above), yeast extract (read: MSG), artificial flavours (read: poison), soy (no doubt GMO) and a whole pile words I can’t […]

  17. “GMO foods have also been linked to numerous health issues, including allergies, liver problems, infertility and sterility, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, kidney stones and more.”
    Can you please advise me on where this scientific evidence is coming from? Where are you getting your statistics from for both the references to GMOs and impact of soy on women’s health. I am not challenging your stand per say, but I would like to refer to those studies myself for clarity.

  18. I love soy, but it does not love me. After three trips to the emergency room after becoming violently ill from consuming soy, I learned that I don’t have an allergy because it does not cause me to swell, get hives, etc., my body just can not tolerate it. I ate it for years and considered giving up meat for soy, then had a serious reaction that caused me to reject it. I have try to use it a little, and within fifteen minutes I am having internal problems. Personally, I think a lot of “gluten” problems may be related to soy or food additives. I am working on eating “clean” and have focused on adapting more of a plant based lifestyle. Thank you for your article. As a typical American, I am not ready to give up completely on meat. I think all things in moderation, with informed choices. I buy meat from a farmer who raises it humanely and is working for certification as organic.

  19. I totally agree that the type of soy that you eat is absolutely the consideration and eating organic, non-GMO, whole food sources should be the focus.
    However, I believe it should be noted that 85% to 90% of the soy that is grown is being used for animal consumption, not for human consumption, and the farming of soy beans at this magnitude is detrimental for the earth.
    I also think there should be some discussion on how the phytoestrogen in soy is different than estrogen in your body and how it interacts differently with beta and alpha cells. There are many health benefits of soy that are not fully outlined in this article. Dr. Gregor has many videos on the health benefits of soy on his website at which are all study based.
    The Asian cultures have done very well health wise in the past by including soy in their diet. However, as you have mentioned, the source of the soy and moderation (like everything) are the key. In North America and we have taken a healthy bean and turned it into a highly processed food like substance that should be avoided.

  20. What do I eat, then?

    I must keep my cholesterol down and if I eat more than 20 cholesterol per day, it sky rockets! I drink Soy Milk (sugarless) instead of dairy milk, and I do drink a protein whey powder (sugarless and “0” cholesterol).
    I make a smoothee consisting of the mentioned whey powder, 1/4 cup cottage cheese, carrots, strawberries, blueberries, avocado, 2 bananas, green leaf lettuce, soy milk, cashew milk, Splenda and Stevia, 2 tsps. strawberry no-sugar jam. I also eat 2 tbs. canned salmon, plus veggie mayo, on a white bun with 10 grams of protein baked in (egg whites). I also eat egg white omelettes with soy cheese.

  21. Amazing article, thank you! I thought tofu was not fermented & best to avoid. The others (tempeh etc) I understand are fermented. Please clarify, thank you! <3

  22. I’m curious – why is sprouted tofu better? I understand that if you were to eat it raw it would be more beneficial. But wouldn’t cooking the sprouted tofu kill the elements of sprouting that makes it super nuritious?

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