Soy and Children

Soy foods photo from PCRM

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

When I was teaching undergraduate nutrition, I asked
students to plan a one-day menu for a 5-year old vegan. Note, that these were
non-vegetarian dietetics students. Here’s what one of them submitted:


English muffin sandwich with scrambled tofu and veg sausage,


Soy yogurt with granola, soymilk, apple, baby carrots with
soy butter


Stir-fry with edamame, tofu, and broccoli; brown rice;
soymilk; soy-based frozen dessert


Smoothie with soymilk and strawberries

My comment? This menu seems over-focused on soy. Because of
the student’s apparent misunderstanding that vegans need a lot of soy to get
adequate protein, the menu lacks variety. If we were to replace every serving
of soy with a hamburger, or with a banana, or with a glass of cow’s milk, it
would still be a menu that lacks variety. There’s just too much of one
kind of food. I suggested some changes – replace the yogurt at lunch with
a hummus dip or a bean burrito; try hash-browns or fruit with breakfast instead
of “sausage”; add more vegetables to the stir-fry in place of some of the tofu
and/or edamame; have a fruit-based dessert likes a wedge of watermelon or apple
cake instead of a soy-based dessert; make the smoothie with another fortified
plant milk. All of these changes will add variety. It’s not that there is something
inherently wrong with soy – it’s just too much of a good thing in a menu like

Some parents and caregivers wonder if children should eat
soy at all and have questions about soy safety. The short answer – research
supports the idea that soy is safe for children and that it may offer short-term
and long-term health benefits. In addition, soy foods can add variety if used
in moderation. Of course, children with a soy allergy should avoid products
containing soy.

Soy foods are an excellent source of protein and essential
amino acids; they are also low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol, and high
in unsaturated fat. Soymilk is often fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and
vitamin B12; some brands of tofu are good sources of calcium and may be
fortified with vitamin B12; tofu-based veggie “meats” may be fortified with
iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.

Women who ate moderate amounts of soy foods in childhood and
adolescence, appear to have as much as a 60% lower risk of breast cancer later
in life.1-4 This is especially the case when soy foods were eaten in

Another advantage of soy is its versatility. For children
who want to fit in, veggie “bologna” sandwiches and tofu “hot dogs” can make
their lunchbox look like that of their classmates’. Concerns about the safety
of soy for children appear to be unfounded. There is really no scientific
support for claims like soy having a feminizing effect or producing adverse
hormonal effects in children in amounts typically eaten.5-8 Based on
intakes of traditional societies, a couple of servings of soy appears to be
safe during childhood.


1. Korde LA, Wu
AH, Fears T, et al. Childhood soy intake and breast cancer risk in Asian
American women. Cancer Epidemiol
Biomarkers Prev.

2. Shu XO, Jin F, Dai Q, et al. Soyfood intake during
adolescence and subsequent risk of breast cancer among Chinese women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2001

3. Wu AH, Yu MC, Tseng CC, et al. Dietary patterns and
breast cancer risk in Asian American women. Am
J Clin Nutr
. 2009 Apr;89(4):1145-1154.

4. Lee SA, Shu XO, Li H, et al. Adolescent and adult soy
food intake and breast cancer risk: results from the Shanghai Women’s Health
Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009

5. Messina M, Rogero MM, Fisberg M, Waitzberg D. Health
impact of childhood and adolescent soy consumption. Nutr Rev.

6. Wada K, Nakamura K, Masue T, et al. Soy intake and
urinary sex hormone levels in preschool Japanese children. Am J Epidemiol. 2011 May 1;173(9):998-1003.

7. Maskarinec G, Morimoto Y, Novotny R, Nordt FJ, Stanczyk
FZ, Franke AA. Urinary sex steroid excretion levels during a soy intervention
among young girls: a pilot study. Nutr Cancer. 2005;52(1):22-28.

8. Zung A, Shachar S, Zadik Z, Kerem Z. Soy-derived isoflavones treatment in children with hypercholesterolemia: a pilot study. J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2010;23(1-2):133-141.

Reed Mangels, PhD, RD is a Nutrition Advisor for The Vegetarian Resource Group.