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You may have heard or even seen the use of soy in infant formulas that are mostly cow’s milk-based. 

It is common for infant formula manufacturers to use soy oil as a means of providing essential fatty acids, as well as using soy lecithin as an emulsifier.  This use of soy is very different from cases where soy is used as a source of protein. 

In this article, we will do a deep dive into soy and its use in infant formulas. We will get into whether or not there is a major difference between using GMO or conventionally produced soy versus the use of organic soy in infant formulas. 

What is Soy?

Soy is a member of the legume family that is native to the Eastern parts of Asia. Soy has been used for centuries by people in Asia before making its way to being a part of the American diet in the 1960s. Soy, otherwise called soybean, provides a myriad of benefits to match its many uses. This useful bean is often used in both it’s fermented and unfermented form. 

  • Fermented uses include: soy sauce, soybean paste, tempeh 
  • Unfermented uses include: soy milk, tofu, soy nuts
  • Products that derive from soy include: soy oil, soy lecithin, soy meal
  • Processed products include: alternative meats, cheese, and yogurt
  • Medical uses: Soy supplements, as powders, tablets, and capsules

Soy is a commonly used product by those who avoid meat and dairy with its many uses and its ability to provide alternative sources of meats and cheese for lactose intolerance/lactase deficiency, or for those with a milk protein allergy. For this reason, soy may be given a good rep in some conversations and a not so good rep in others. But, what are the benefits and health effects of using soy? 

Well, there are many benefits to using soy. As mentioned, soy provides an alternative to commonly used products that some may elect not to use or are allergic to. For instance, soy milk is one of the most common soy products used to substitute cow’s milk for many reasons, such as being lactose-free, and it still often contains important nutrients found in cow’s milk, such as DHA and amino acids. 

Apart from that, here are some other reasons why people say there are benefits to using soy: 

  • It offers a boost in fiber intake 
  • Provides a great source of plant protein which can help support heart health
  • Is an important source of fatty acids 
  • It provides a great source of vitamins and minerals, namely: protein, fiber, B-vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and many others. 

Why is Soy Used in Infant Formulas?

With the many uses of soy listed above, you may have already pieced together why many manufacturers use soy in infant formulas. In this section, we will get more specific, outlining all the many reasons why your baby formula may contain soy. 

As an emulsifier

Soy lecithin is often used in infant formulas as well as other processed foods such as ice cream, bread, and other food items as an emulsifier. This means that it is used to stabilize the product by allowing it to mix together. Some substances are not able to be mixed together well and so through the process of emulsion that is changed. 

As you can tell, from the list of food listed above, soy lecithin is a common component in many processed and conveniently accessible food items. This also means that many of us consume it, sometimes unknowingly. 

On the flip side, in cases where this is the use of soy, it is used in small amounts. Where the concern comes in, especially in cases of its use in infant formulas, is how it is grown and processed. We will explore this in more detail below. 

To provide essential fats 

One of the main reasons why you may see soy in your infant formula is because it provides essential fats. In this case, soy oil is being used. This oil is usually highly refined so that it contains no protein. 

The use of soybean oil is so widespread because, for a long time, this was the only approved source of said essential fats. 

If your infant formula is to be as close as possible to breast milk then it must contain essential fatty acids, and this is gained from the use of approved vegetable oils. 

But, if it provides such an important component, then what are the drawbacks? Well, the controversy surrounding soy is mostly geared at how it’s processed and the use of soy protein as a protein source.

As a protein source

While the two uses listed above address the use of soy in the vast majority of infant formulas, the use of soy protein is only used in a select few formulas. 

All infant formulas must contain protein, and it is usually secondary to carbs and fats as the base of formula. When classifying formulas, the protein source is used to categorize. Cow-milk formula uses cow’s milk proteins as the base, while soy infant formula, uses soy proteins as the base. 

Soy infant formulas are usually recommended in cases where the family has dietary restrictions that prevent the use of cow’s milk formula. This could be due to lifestyle (vegan or vegetarian diet) or due to a milk allergy.  

While soy infant formulas make up 12% of infant formula sales in the United States, the soy protein formula and soy protein isolate are a concern for many when it comes to infant feeding and soy in general. Let’s talk about why.

Why Some People May Be Concerned About Soy

Soy Isoflavones

Soy isoflavones are compounds that have estrogen properties. They are often called phytoestrogens because they are essentially plant-made properties which depict estrogenic activity. Isoflavones are produced exclusively by the bean family and it is said that soybeans and other soy products make up the bulk of isoflavones that humans consume.   

The issue with this arises because these chemicals have hormone-like activity and this may have adverse effects on appropriate human development. A 2018 study referenced by the National Institutes of Health looked into estrogen-responsive tissues and hormone activity in infants fed soy formulas (meaning formulas with soy as the protein source and not just an ingredient). 

It was found that when comparing girls who were fed cow’s milk formula to those who were given soy formulas, the results differed. The results showed that tissue and reproductive system organ level development took place in those on soy formulas, and it was in line with the response to consumed or external estrogen. 

For this reason, many are concerned about using soy as a protein base. However, this concern does not carry over to cases where soy oil or soy lecithin is concerned because these elements usually do not contain soy protein. 

Genetic Modification – Soy as a GMO Product

For purposes of soy oil, soy lecithin, and use of soy as a protein source have people concerned about the fact that the majority of soy production within the U.S. involves genetic modification.

GMO means Genetically Modified Organisms, and these are plants that have been altered using genetic engineering. 

Here are some common items that are marketed and sold in their GMO forms: corn, cotton, canola, soybeans, sugar beets, apples, potatoes, summer squash, alfalfa, and papaya. 

Where it concerns soybeans, 94% of all soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.  However, there is still that 6% that is organically grown.

Pesticides and Processing

Apart from stemming from GMOs, there are concerns about the use of pesticides and other harmful substances during farming. Many of the pesticides used are for targeting insects, weeds, and crop invaders of the like. 

Added to that, there is some concern about hydrogenated oils and soy oil being processed in this way. Hydrogenated means that through the addition of hydrogen, liquid saturated fat is turned into solid fat. This is done to extend the shelf-life of many products. 

Also, many are also concerned about the use of hexane, a component of gasoline which is used to extract soy oil. In most cases, none of this product remains in the soy oil and it still goes through another stage of refinement. 

It is important to note that these processes are almost entirely unique to conventionally processed soy. 

Organic Soy vs. Conventional Soy 

Organic soy and conventional soy differ vastly, and these differences will show in your infant formulas. If your baby formula is made with conventionally produced soy, then the process may be similar to those above. 

Organically produced soy on the other hand may prove to be a safer choice, and all the benefits from having those essential fatty acids may still be gained. In this case, we are referring to the use of soy in soy oil or lecithin. When soy is used as a protein source, the conversation has a different focus because that deals with the actual properties of the plant. 

Here are some components of the production of organic soy and its products: 

  • For it to be organic, it must be certified by the USDA, so be sure to look out for that seal. 
  • Organic soy is non-GMO. By that, the byproducts such as soy oil will also be non-GMO.
  • Organic soy oil is expeller pressed, this means the soybean is squeezed to produce the oil.  
  • The soy lecithin used will be mechanically extracted and so will not use solvents like hexane. 

Ultimately, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does accept soy formulas as a healthy and safe alternative to cow’s milk or for those who no longer want to or no longer can breastfeed. Don’t forget, you can always consult a pediatrician if you have concerns about using soy or moving away from human milk in general, or with concerns specific to your baby like low birth-weight or current body weight in preterm infants, or bone mineralization.

Summary

Yes, there are cases where you may find soy in infant formulas. Your cow’s milk-based infant formula may contain soy lecithin and soy oil from the soybean plant. While there is some controversy around the use of soy oil and soy lecithin, the research shows that many of them can be addressed by the use of organically grown and processed soy over conventional soy. 

Organic soy oil or soy lecithin in infant formulas contain no protein and are produced using mechanical processes as opposed to solvents. They are also made from crops that are naturally grown, using approved organic methods.

If you are looking for an infant formula that provides all the nutrients your baby needs in a way that is made safe and with you in mind, then Bobbie offers that. Look out for that organic soy oil or organic soy lecithin on the ingredient label of your baby formula, and your formula feeding should go just fine, even with the inevitable fussiness of a hungry little one. 

Sources:

https://www.intechopen.com/books/soybean-bio-active-compounds/the-effects-of-hydrogenation-on-soybean-oil

https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/about-ge-foods

https://www.fda.gov/food/food-new-plant-varieties/understanding-new-plant-varieties

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29506126/ doi: 10.1210/jc.2017-02249

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17491-soy-foods

https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/a-guide-to-foods-rich-in-soy

Bridget Reed
Author

Bridget Reed is an experienced writer, editor, and SEO content manager. She graduated with her bachelor’s in business management and organizational leadership and is a proud mom of three.

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