Not Soy Fast

September 1, 2005

We can add one more to the ever growing list of Asian stereotypes. Somewhere after “all Asians are good at math” and “Asian men are as sexy as William Hung,” we can now add “Asians can eat all the soy they want.”

Actually, I used to buy into the latter stereotype -- until I ate a few bags of microwavable popcorn. Not once, but twice after downing the buttery snack I went into a rolling-on-the-floor crazy sneeze attack. Bewildered, since all my windows were closed (so, no, it couldn't have been pollen wafting in), I looked at the ingredients of the only thing I had eaten in the last few hours: popping corn, hydrogenated soybean oil, salt.

OK, I know I can eat corn, and I am pretty sure that I'm not allergic to salt, so what could it be? Soybean oil?

It turns out that my reaction is far from unheard of. In fact, there are more than a few studies linking soybean oil to heightened allergic reactions. A Finnish study found that children with margarine-heavy diets tended to have greater allergic reactions to pollen and dander than their butter-eating counterparts. Another study found Barcelona residents suffering from asthma due to soybean dust emanating from a nearby grain silo.

In America, the soy industry has not been shy in touting the purported health benefits of its legume, from preventing cancer and heart disease to cooling down women's hot flashes. For lactose intolerant Asians, soy milk has been the long sought grail in our quest for a dairy substitute. Not only is it free of dreaded lactose, but soy milk is also free of the protein casein, an allergen linked to respiratory problems.

Most of us are familiar with the soy products found in our mom's cooking or served at Asian restaurants: tofu, soy sauce, miso, edamame, natto and tempeh. But, there are many less familiar forms of soy shrouded in scientific nomenclature on the labels of many processed foods: hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lecithin, which is commonly found in chocolate.

What the labels of these products don't tell us is that soy is a common allergen, rated in the top eight by allergists. Soy protein contains 15 different allergens that can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from itching, eczema and rhinitis (typical runny nose allergy symptoms) to more severe reactions like asthma and anaphylactic shock.

No data suggests that moderate amounts of soy are bad for everyone, but studies continue to question the monolithic benefits. So, should you ever break out into a rash after a meal, don't count out the tofu in black bean sauce. Even if you're Asian. —Tobin Mori

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