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Soya – the healthy miracle bean?

This pulse is not only popular in Asia, its area of origin: soya is eaten increasingly often here in Switzerland, too. Available as tempeh, tofu and soya milk, soya is not only enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans. Soya products are enjoying growing popularity as healthy alternatives to meat among "part-time vegetarians", too.

Despite this, soya is probably one of the most controversial foods: from superfood to a foodstuff that may increase the risk of cancer – there is all sorts of conflicting information in the media. But what's behind this? We provide answers to the most frequently asked questions and take a look at the ingredients.

These are the nutritional values of soya beans

The first thing you notice is the high protein content: dried soya beans consist of 40 per cent protein. Even compared to foods of animal origin, soya products can usually keep up in terms of protein content:
Food
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
Food
Soya flakes
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
41
Food
Tofu
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
15.3
Food
Meat
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
21.4
Food
Soya milk
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
3.6
Food
Cow's milk
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
3.2
Food
Yoghurt alternative made from soya
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
4
Food
Yoghurt made from cow's milk
Protein content in grams per 100 grams
3.9
Protein content of various foods.
Close-up of a soya plant with green bean pods
In addition to the amount of protein, the quality of the protein also plays an important role. Among plant-based proteins, soya protein offers the best quality: it is easily digested and well absorbed by our bodies.
Alongside protein, soya also provides dietary fibre, polyunsaturated fatty acids, folic acid, B vitamins, calcium, zinc and iron. Some of these can also be found in processed soya products, but the levels can differ greatly. The proportion of soya in the product and the way in which it is prepared are both factors. If a product is heated intensely or for a long time, for example, this reduces the amount of heat-sensitive vitamins. If a product contains only a very small amount of soya (e.g. soya milks), then this does not contain any significant amounts of vitamins or minerals.

Does consuming soya increase the risk of breast cancer?

Soya contains isoflavones. These plant substances are also known as phyto-oestrogens, as they strongly resemble our body's own oestrogen. The female hormone oestrogen is considered to be one of the main factors that influences the risk of breast cancer. Phyto-oestrogens are present in many plants, but soya contains comparatively large quantities. As such, it has long been suspected that consuming large quantities of soya is not healthy and increases the risk of breast cancer. However, comprehensive clinical studies show that soya products and the isoflavones contained within them do not increase the risk of breast cancer. Far from it, in fact. there is even evidence that consuming large quantities of soya could actually reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

Does soya relieve menopause symptoms?

Tofu cubes made from soya in brown sauce
During the menopause, hormone levels in the body change. Oestrogen levels drop. As a result, many women experience uncomfortable hot flushes. Studies show that regularly consuming isoflavones from soya can help to significantly alleviate the symptoms. It is assumed that isoflavones can compensate for hormone fluctuations owing to their similarity to oestrogen.

Can soya products feminize men?

Glass of soya milk next to a plate of tofu and soya beans
We are seeing more and more headlines along the lines of "Does soya make men infertile?" or "Does soya milk give you man boobs?". There are plenty of claims like these circulating in the media. Yet there is little data available, and results of smaller studies are very inconsistent. Large epidemiological studies, some involving the consumption of large quantities of isoflavones, have not provided any evidence of these assumptions.

Can soya trigger allergies?

Just like other foodstuffs, soya can trigger allergies. If the allergy is severe, it can lead to life-threatening allergic shock. However, only around 0.6 per cent of the population have been diagnosed with a soya allergy. In comparison, allergies to cow's milk are around three times more common in Switzerland.
Cross-sensitivity to soya is also possible. In such cases, people who have an existing allergy to birch pollen also react to soya. This is because a few allergens in both birch pollen and soya are very similar. So similar, in fact, that our immune system cannot tell the difference and reacts to soya. For some people who react to birch pollen, consuming foods made from soya, such as tofu or other meat substitute products, can therefore lead to allergic reactions.

Is the increasing consumption of soya contributing to the destruction of the rainforest?

Person holding up a sign which reads
In the last 40 years, the demand for soya has increased fivefold. Large tracts of rainforest are being cleared to cater to this increase, and this is having a negative impact on the climate and biodiversity. People assume that this high demand is caused by the trend towards plant-based diets. But this is not the case: 75 per cent of the global soya bean harvest is used as fodder for livestock. Another proportion is processed into soya oil and just a small proportion is made into foods such as soya milk and tofu. The largest driver of soya cultivation is the high level of meat consumption.

How is Coop supporting responsible soya cultivation?

For Coop own-label brand tofu, soya milks and edamame, we attach great importance to the origin of the soya beans. Whenever possible, we give preference to soya cultivated in Switzerland or Europe. The entire "Karma Tofu" range is made using Swiss soya and is also Bio Suisse bud label certified