Soy is an inexpensive and flexible food, used widely in its various forms. It smooths our chocolate, is a primary oil source for our sauces, and is often added in to foods to boost the protein content. Soy based flour and infant formula is used by folks who cannot use the common versions. Many health foods rely on soy’s reputation as a healthy protein source with isoflavones that may improve health outcomes. Families that are avoiding meat or reducing its consumption often add soy heavily into the rotation, as tofu or edamame.
But soy is also one of the top eight food allergens, and many without a soy allergy or sensitivity still prefer to avoid or minimize soy in the diet because of questions about whether the isoflavones, or phytoestrogens, can have a harmful effect on the body as estrogen mimics. Soy, like many seed foods in their natural and raw state, contains chemicals referred to as “antinutrients”. Seeds are designed to inhibit their own growth until environmental conditions are right, and the antinutrients that keep a seed dormant until water and warmth trigger it to sprout may have an effect on the human body if they aren’t processed out. Soybeans also are one of the main crops using GMO technology, so minimizing GMO consumption usually means reducing soy use.
Because soy is so useful for food producers and cooks, however, it can be extremely difficult to find products that are soy free. Complicating matters is that some who have reactions to soybean may not have a reaction to highly refined soybean oil or soy lecithin. Groceries are required to list soy as an allergen on the product package, but some forms of soy may be present and not labeled. Take care, for example, not to ingest products that contain vegetable oil, if the source of the oil is not labeled.
Here are some quick tips for eating soy free without spending too much money or time.
1. Bread nearly always contains soy, in the form of flour, oil, or lecithin — sometimes all three. Look for the bread that is meant to be consumed immediately, soy isn’t as necessary in breads that are not preserved for use over a week’s time. Fresh tortillas, bakery breads that go stale within a day, some breads to be thawed and baked from the freezer section may have no soy. Be sure to check labels every single time you buy — ingredients can change.
2. Shortening and margarine can be soybean based, and “vegetable” oil and many blends contain soybean oil. One surprise helper can be lard. Lard stores well, can be used in a number of different breads and in frying, and because it is a solid there’s less possibility of confusion or mis-labeling. One source of worry, for example, is that restaurants with olive oil dips or dressings can use products that have olive oil in them, but also soybean oil. You will never mistake soybean oil for lard.
Make quick biscuits by mixing baking powder and salt with flour, cutting in lard (more lard means more crumbly), then stirring in milk until you have a dough. Roll out or drop on a cookie sheet and cook at 350 degrees for ten to fifteen minutes. Honey, butter, and jam make this a decent substitute for a breakfast cereal (many have soy).
3. Zero in on the product brands that regularly use sunflower lecethin or canola oil instead of soybean products. These brands might be fancy niche labels, but they are just as likely to be generics. Generic potato chips, for example, often use sunflower oil; generic cereals can sometimes have only a grain and salt. Again, always double check the label as companies swap out ingredients regularly.
4. Sauces and dips can be a big stumbling block, many of us rely on jars of quick flavor to add variety to dinners. Your best bet is to avoid oil based sauces (like salad dressing) and sauces with soy sauce itself as an ingredient (Teriyaki, etc.). Try to move to cooking that uses dairy based condiments, like dips and spreads made with yogurt or sour cream. A good dip or dressing can be made with sour cream, buttermilk, and a package mix or home mix of spices (find the mix without soy, of course). Some simple mixes, like a barbeque sauce made with molasses or brown sugar and ketchup, can be mixed up at home. Sweet and sour sauces are often soy free, as are simple sides like relish and mustard. Mayonnaise and mayonnaise based sauces (like horseradish) will not work unless you can find one made without soybean oil, a main ingredient in most. But if you can train your palate to accept a yogurt spread, like you get on Greek gyros, you should be able to substitute with little work.
5. One of the heart breakers when you find you can’t eat soy is that you have to give up most chocolate candy. You can find some comfort if you make your own small chocolates at home, keeping them in the freezer to avoid having to use soy. Simply warm coconut oil (grocery oil), cocoa powder, peanut butter (without soy) and a sweetener (honey or agave work better than sugar, which can stay grainy), add a bit of vanilla when it cools, and pour into mini cupcake papers. Set in a dish in the freezer until the oil hardens the chocolates, and pull them out to snack. You can pour the chocolate over frozen cherries or nuts for variety.
Once you begin trying to eat soy free, give yourself time to develop tactics and strategies. It will take about a year to create new family habits and even tastes, and after that eating without soy will not be so difficult. Give yourself time to learn, accept some compromises (buying that expensive health food store product with “Soy Free!” pasted right above the huge price tag). Remember that, if you have a soy problem, a few months of work will bring you to a place where you feel better and are better able to tackle the menu planning and cooking.