Let me preface this post by saying that I am a huge fan of the soybean. Having been a vegetarian (and occasional vegan) for the past 20 years, soy products and I have obviously become BFF.
So when we were trying to figure out my son’s eating issues, I was hoping that soy formula would be the golden ticket. Unfortunately, it turned out that he was allergic to both dairy and soy, and we ended up on hypollergenic formula (Similac Alimemtum). But this had nothing to do with my feelings about soy. Just so we are clear. I still love you, my sweet soybean!
Soy has been in the news a lot lately. Once the golden child of women’s health (it was said to prevent numerous cancers, heart disease, and help alleviate problems associated with menopause), like so many things that have once been exalted for health reasons, the establishment has turned on poor old soy. Now it is being blamed for all sorts of ills, including decreasing metabolism, enlarging thyroids, and killing testicular cells. Yummy.
What does this mean for babies on soy formula? One would think that any problems associated with soy would be exacerbated in its use as an infant formula, since, well, babies are small, and things affect them more strongly than bigger humans (how’s that for a scientific explanation?). In 2008, The AAP came out with a report called “Use of Soy Protein-Based Formulas in Infant Feeding,” which updated it’s 1998 review of soy formulas. Basically, it says the following:
1. Soy formulas have no advantage over cow milk-based formulas.
2. For pre-term infants, soy formulas are not recommended.
3. Soybeans are high in phytoestrogens (estrogen-like compounds found in plant products), but there is no “conclusive evidence” from any study showing that that “eating soy causes problems to human development, reproduction or endocrine function.” (WebMD)
3. If you are vegetarian and do not feel comfortable with milk products (well, actually, the correct term would be “vegan” as vegetarians are fine with dairy products, but hey, semantics…it’s not like the AAP has dieticians on staff or anything….) or your child is lactose intolerant, soy is a safe choice; otherwise stick to milk-based formulas.
4. For kids with food allergies, hypoallergenic formulas are a better bet; many kids who are sensitive to cow’s milk protein are also sensitive to soy. There is no evidence that soy formula confers any protection against the development of allergies over regular formula. (Note: there actually was a recent AAP paper stating that there is possibly an advantage to hydrolysate formulas like Alimentum in this respect; that’s fodder for another post though, so we won’t go into it here.)
Now that we’ve seen what the AAP has to say, let’s look at this from a real-world perspective. Telling a parent that there are “no conclusive studies” on something and then warning him/her to stay away from it isn’t very comforting to that parent. No one wants to be responsible for his/her kid growing breasts at age 8 (especially if that kid is a boy). Why would they warn parents away from soy formula if it were safe?
Here’s one possible answer: the AAP likes to cover it’s bases. These are the same folks who told us to treat peanuts as arsenic for the first few years of a kid’s life; now they are sheepishly (and quietly) admitting that perhaps this policy had a contradictory effect (more kids getting peanut allergies rather than less). Take their statements with a grain of salt – like your mom, they mean well, but can be a little over-dramatic. The truth is that there have simply not been enough studies on the long-term effects of soy formula. I know this won’t put anyone’s mind at ease, but let’s look at it another way – science is discovering new advantages and disadvantages to everything in our world every freaking day. Soy formula has been used for the past 100 years, and while there could obviously be a study that comes out tomorrow saying that it causes all sorts of evils, there could just as easily be a study that proves that potatoes cause cancer. You just never know. All you can do is make an informed decision and weight the pros and cons, and overall, soy formula seems to be a relatively safe choice.
I turned to Dr. Greene, my new favorite pop pediatrician, for some insight. In 2001, he posted the following:
Babies who drink soy formula receive significant amounts of estrogen-like compounds (phytoestrogens) in the form of soy isoflavones. This happens at a developmental time when permanent effects are theoretically possible. Some have speculated that soy formula might be responsible for early puberty in girls or infertility in boys. The August 15, 2001 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contains the results of a study of 811 adults, some of who drank soy formula as children and others who drank milk-based formulas. No statistically significant differences were observed between the groups in either women or men. They followed more than 30 different measures of general health or reproductive health. Breast milk is clearly the ideal food for babies, but this study is quite reassuring that soy formulas are a safe alternative. This is good news for babies who do not tolerate cow’s milk formulas well.
Granted, this was nine years ago; the AAP statement came out seven years later. But reading the AAP statement, it doesn’t seem like much has changed, does it?
What I think has changed is the perception of soy in general. The issue with soy is that it is in practically everything. Read any label in your kitchen cupboard – I guarantee you’ll see some terms like soy protein isolate, soy lecithin, soy isoflavens. Even if nary a cube of tofu should ever pass your lips, you’ll still be consuming a fair amount of soy in your lifetime. The problems we are seeing now that are associated with soy are most likely from an overabundance of it in our diets – a real conundrum for vegetarians like me. Once I started looking into it, I realized I was eating soy cheese, soy yogurt, soy milk, tofu, and a myriad of veggie-friendly products all made from soy. Rather than freaking out completely, I opted to switch to almond milk, coconut milk yogurt, and decided to eat dairy cheese or no cheese at all. I still eat tofu and veggie meat (made with soy) nearly every day, but at least it’s not the main ingedient in everything I eat. Moderation, people, moderation.
Back to the babies… If your child can’t tolerate dairy, you basically have two choices in formula – soy or hypoallergenic. It comes down to preference – for those who don’t like the idea of processed, chemical food, then soy formula will probably be a better bet. You can get it in organic variants, and at least you can prononce the majority of the ingredients. The hydrolysate formulas tend to fare better in studies, but they are completely manufactured, not available organic, and extremely cost prohibitive. Plus, a lot of kids won’t drink them, because they taste like crap. Weight the pros and cons and realize that no matter what, you’ll be able to switch them off the stuff in a few short months. (At which point, if you are concerned about an overabundance of soy, I would recommend weaning to regular milk, or a substitute other than soy, like rice, oat or hemp).
Take away message? Go for the soy if it works for your family – my hubbie was raised on the stuff and he doesn’t have boobs. I promise.