What You Need to Know About Soy in Baby Formula
Soy was once hailed as one of the most important health foods, but it has fallen off a cliff since then, now described as one to avoid. This becomes even more prevalent when dealing with infant formula. So, let’s take a look at everything you need to know about soy, the problems with it, and how soy oil and soy lecithin can still be good ingredients.
What is Soy?
Soy is made from soybeans and is used to create products such as tofu and soy milk (whole soy products), soy sauce and miso (fermented soy products), soy protein isolate and meat and cheese substitutes (processed soy products), and soy lecithin (oil and derivative soy product). Soybean oil and soy protein isolate has also been used as a protein and fat source for infant formula, while soy lecithin has been used as an emulsifier.
What are the benefits of soy?
Soy products come with a number of minerals and nutrients, with HealthLine listing Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Iron, Potassium, Thiamine, Folate, Riboflavin, Magnesium, Zinc, Phosphorus, Copper, Manganese, Vitamin B6, Niacin, and Vitamin E.
Soy also contains a prebiotic fibre to help digestion, as well as a plant-based protein. Some have even suggested that soy can help with high cholesterol or menopause symptoms. The majority of experts do admit that soy can be helpful when used in a balanced diet and eaten in moderation.
What about soy in infant formulas?
Formula uses soy in three different ways, either as a source of fat, a source of protein, or an emulsifier. The most controversial when it comes to infant formula is soy protein.
Every infant formula on the market has to contain some form of protein source by law, as that is also a huge part of natural breast milk. Most products turn to cow’s milk for this, but soy-based formula uses soy protein isolate as an alternative. This is usually for children who cannot use milk formula or consume natural breast milk, perhaps because they suffer from Galactosemia. Almost all babies are born with lactase enzymes to break down milk protein, some are not. Therefore, the AAP suggest that ONLY babies with lactase deficiency (hereditary) or Galactosemia can use soy formula. Galactosemia is completely different from CMPA and infants who have CMPA should not consume soy formula. Instead, they should opt for extensively hydrolyzed formula like HiPP Comfort, amino acid-based formula, hypoallergenic formula like HiPP HA PRE or hydrolyzed rice based formulas such as BeBe M or Premiriz.
Soy formula also does not contain animal by-products, which is why some vegetarian or vegan families opt for it as a plant-based food source.
The problems with soy formula
Over recent times, there have been increased worries over the use of soy protein, especially when it comes to baby formula. Reproductive cells and tissues can be impacted and changed by the phytoestrogens (contains estrogen-like compounds) found within soy protein.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia stated: “Soy protein contains high amounts of genistein, an estrogen-like compound. Like other estrogen-mimicking chemicals found in the environment, genistein can alter the body’s endocrine system and potentially interfere with normal hormonal development.”
There have not been any wide studies into infants and soy exposure as of yet, but animal studies have indicated potential early onset puberty and breast tissue and reproductive tissue changes. Another study indicated that women may have longer periods if they were given soy-based formula as children – they are also more likely to have endometriosis. A third study said that gene activation can be changed if a child is exposed to soy early in their life. As such, we agree with the AAP that soy formula should never be used unless it is completely necessary.
The safer soy
Companies use oils in baby formula to mimic the natural fat found in breast milk, as well as to give the child the fatty acids and nutrients they need. Cow’s milk is pretty different to human breast milk, so vegetable oils are added to infant formula to provide those fatty acids. However, plenty of US products use soybean oil for this job, despite not marketing their products as soy formula. This is because soybean oil is readily available, cheap to use, and has a lot of those fatty acids we mentioned. Soy oil is taken from the fatty part of the soybean plant, where phytoestrogens are not found, meaning the problems stated above do not apply to soybean oil. The most common problems with soybean oil revolve around pesticides used on the crops which may leave residue, genetic modification, and oil processing which can result in trans fats. However, if the soy oil is made using organic soy, those problems also vanish! If a product has an organic certification, it means it is free from GMO and pesticide residue. So if you see the organic label, then you are good to go!
It can be easy to just ignore soy altogether in order to guarantee that you avoid any issues. And while soy formula and non-organic soy ingredients are problematic and should not ideally be consumed by infants, soy lecithin does have its place.
Soy Lecithin is a by-product of soy oil and is usually used as an emulsifier in formula products, which means it helps to stop fats and oils from separating. You likely consume soy lecithin on a daily basis, as it is included in things like peanut butter, chocolate, salad dressing, and even some brands of tea. In powder products, soy lecithin can also be utilised to stop clumping. If you eat processed foods, it is extremely likely that you consume soy lecithin.
The benefits of soy lecithin
All lecithins, including soy, are made up of phospholipids and oil, with the main soy phospholipid being the phosphatidylcholine compound, which is also found in natural breast milk.
The National Institutes of Health state: ‘Lecithin is a mixture of choline, choline esters, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, triglycerides, phosphoric acid, and phospholipids, such as phosphatidylcholine that are normal components of human milk.’
Therefore, infant formulas often use soy lecithin as a stabiliser to prevent clumping, while it also increases the micronutrients in the formula to get close to breastmilk levels. That’s why it is used by products such as HiPP Dutch Stage 3.
The concerns with soy lecithin
Soy lecithin actually only contains small traces of soy protein, for anyone worried on the exposure front. So even kids with soy allergies can still consume soy lecithin safely. The problems with phytoestrogen are not really a concern when it comes to soy lecithin, due to the low soy protein traces. However, we still recommend that you consult your paediatrician before introducing a new formula, especially if your child has a soy allergy or you have any other concerns.
Final thoughtSoybean oil and soy lecithin are both safe to use and consume in baby formulas, however, you should opt for non-GMO and organic soy ingredients. However, soy-based formula should be avoided if possible. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out and contact our team of experts who would be happy to help.