Soy or ploy?

When Lynn Gordon found herself suffering from hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms after a hysterectomy, she turned to a popular alternative remedy that’s said to help: soy. But she didn’t just eat lots of tofu and leave it at that. As president of the French Meadow Bakery in Minneapolis, she decided to create a special bread that would help other women get more soy into their diets too.

"I wanted to target the women ... who eat normal food and go to McDonald’s – not just the preferred, lucky, health-conscious women," says Gordon. Another motivation, she says, was that her mother had died of ovarian cancer.

One of the important ingredients of French Meadow’s new "Woman’s Bread" is soy isoflavones, enzymes that occur naturally in soy products. Two slices a day provide 80 mg of the nutrients, twice the amount generally recommended to help prevent female-specific cancers, osteoporosis, heart disease and symptoms associated with menopause, including hot flashes and mood swings. It has also been suggested that isoflavones are a safer alternative to hormone replacement therapy for treating these symptoms.

With so many apparent benefits, soy is among the latest health trends, a sort of miracle legume for women’s health. However, a recent study by Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic researchers shows that soy may not do all that it’s purported to do. The study shows soy pills did not reduce hot flashes in a group of roughly 180 breast cancer survivors. Soon after the findings appeared in the March 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Mirabella magazine ran a story saying the benefits of soy had been debunked.

"There are people saying soy is wonderful and others are saying it’s snake oil," says Suzanna Zick, a researcher at University of Michigan’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Center for Cardiovascular Diseases.

"It’s sexy or exciting to say all of these things about soy. It sells products."

Zick says when considering such isolated studies, it is important to remember it will likely take much more research to determine anything definite in terms of how soy plays into such women’s health issues as menopause.

"We don’t understand what causes women to have hot flashes," she says. "There are a number of possibilities, including that it’s culturally based. Women in some other cultures don’t have them."

Susan Quella, nurse coordinator for the North Central Cancer Treatment Group and the Mayo Clinic soy-debunking study’s principal investigator, says Japanese women don’t have hot flashes. Some researchers believe it is because they eat more soy than their Western counterparts. However, she adds, the phenomenon could also be attributed to their consumption of fish oils, which are also more prevalent in Japanese food than Western fare.

Quella stands by the results of her study, but she isn’t down on soy. In fact, she says plenty of solid scientific studies indicate that soy could help prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.

Keep in mind, says Zick, that scientific evidence isn’t available for most alternative remedies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. For instance, she says, there are no scientific studies on the use of red raspberry leaf tea to decrease the duration of labor for pregnant women, but women all over the globe have used the tea for that purpose for thousands of years.

In general, Zick says, "I think we can probably say that soy is a good food to be adding to your diet. It’s low in fat and high in protein, and that’s hard to knock."

Despite varied press surrounding soy, Women’s Bread has quickly become one of French Meadow’s best-selling breads since it went on the market eight months ago. In addition to nongenetically modified soy and sprouted grains, it includes flax seed to combat the vaginal dryness associated with menopause, and cranberries for urinary tract health.

Gordon says she’s eaten two slices of Women’s Bread every day for roughly eight months, and that all of her symptoms have decreased, including the hot flashes.

"There are so many studies, for and against, sometimes its hard to know where to go," admits French Meadow bakery co-owner Steven Shapiro. "But the overall body of research shows that soy isoflavones, in the quantity you’re getting them (from Woman’s Bread), are beneficial."

Although Woman’s Bread has been a big hit, some men were offended by the name. But now, nutritionists are refining the bakery’s formula for Men’s Bread, set to debut in September. Meanwhile, Shapiro says men can take advantage of the high protein content of Woman’s Bread. He says he’s eaten it, and "so far, the beard’s still there."

Jennifer Bagwell is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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