The commonality of finding tofu, soy sauce, and soy milk in any local supermarket is a testament to how prevalent soy has become in the United States. However, there is a growing fear surrounding the use of soy as a dietary supplement due to the alleged effects of phytoestrogens (in soy products) on men’s reproductive health and masculinity. Scientific literature fails to garner support for either of these claims, but the soy scare persists in the United States especially considering that soy is present in about 70% of all processed foods (Pollan, 2007, p. 35). Using hegemonic masculinity as the conceptual framework, I propose that the fear-mongering of soy in relation to men’s health and masculinity continues to proliferate in the United States because of the misconception of estrogen as a female-specific hormone and the deliberate misinformation distributed by the soy industry’s adversaries.
I begin by defining hegemonic masculinity in the context of my argument. Christine Beasley (2008) explains the concept in relation to women and other marginalized forms of masculinity. Simply put, masculinities are not created equal. The men who embody the most socially dominant form of masculinity stand at the top of the hierarchy, while women and femininity are implicitly understood as inferior to men and all forms of masculinities (Beasley, 2008). Hegemonic masculinity reinforces the standards of the dominant form of masculinity. It creates an environment that encourages its participants to suppress nonconformists regardless of where they (the participants) stand in the power structure. In other words, a man’s worth is tied to the how successfully he can fulfill his gender roles as determined by his particular society. In the United States, Eurocentrism has shaped masculinity into expectations for assertiveness, strength, and fearlessness (Vetterling-Braggin, 1982, p. 6). Any deviations from this norm, such as empathy, passivity, or vulnerability, provoke criticism and judgment upon the transgressor. In addition, Will Courtenay (2000) proposes that health-related actions and beliefs serve as a means of demonstrating masculinities and that health behaviors contribute to the social structuring of gender relations. By extension, this suggests that the soy scare arises in an effort to meet or maintain dominant masculinity standards. Because the supposed feminizing effects of soy can potentially hinder the ability of a man to fully embody his masculine ideals, soy is shaped into an object of fear for men. However, as stated earlier, no current research confirms the existence of such effects. If this is the case, then why does this misconception continue to prevail? In the following sections, I explore the possible reasons for the continued fear-mongering of soy in the United States through misunderstandings and misinformation.
The fear-mongering of soy begins with the public’s flawed fundamental understanding of estrogen. The root of the confusion comes from the labeling of estrogen as the “female hormone”, which leads people to assume that estrogen solely occurs in the female body. Estrogen is also usually mentioned in conjunction with the female reproductive system and, therefore, inextricably linked with women in the mind of the public. This lends itself to the misconception that men do not naturally produce estrogen and that the phytoestrogens in soy are a foreign hormone to men’s bodies. Contrary to this belief, studies have shown that men produce consistent levels of estrogen within their bodies, at least after puberty (Holland & Cruickshank, 2018). In fact, estrogen plays an important role in male sexual health by regulating libido, erectile function, and spermatogenesis (Schulster et al., 2016, p. 435). The difference lies in the fact that men maintain relatively lower concentrations of estrogen than women (Holland & Cruickshank, 2018). The phytoestrogens in soy are believed to disrupt and elevate estrogen levels in men’s bodies and lead to the alleged feminizing effects of soy. Nevertheless, although similar in shape and function to animal-derived (or human-derived) estrogens, phytoestrogens are plant-derived estrogens that block estrogen receptors but do not increase overall estrogen levels in the human body (Brzezinski & Debi, 1999; Burgess, 2018). Phytoestrogens have been found to exert relatively weaker effects than that of animal-derived estrogens (Setchell, 1998). By this, I do not mean to suggest that phytoestrogens have no effect. For the purposes of my argument, I am merely making the distinction that phytoestrogens do not make men more “feminine” as certain groups of people may believe. This notion can be more attributed to the linkage of estrogens with the female body. Additionally, the negative undertones associated with femininity in men can be attributed to the subordination of women under hegemonic masculine ideology. When left unchecked, misunderstandings, such as estrogen as a female-specific hormone, can create opportunities for opponents of the soy industry to propagate falsities that contribute to the persistence of fear-mongering of soy in the United States.
The public’s limited or incorrect understanding of phytoestrogens along with passive consumerism allow the adversaries of the soy industry to create their own authoritative discourses about soy. The rise of veganism and vegetarianism, perpetuated by the fact that soy serves as an excellent protein substitute, has shifted public interest away from the consumption of meat and animal products. Consequently, this harms the profits of the meat and dairy industries. In an attempt to minimize the extent of their losses and as well as regain consumer endorsement, the meat and dairy industries create front organizations that propagate misinformation about soy. One such organization is the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), a nonprofit organization claiming to support “good nutrition” through the restoration of nutrient-rich animal products (Wilson, 2014). In reality, WAPF recives most of its financial contributions from meat and dairy farmers and lobbies for a shift in diets to raw milk and grass-fed beef (Wilson, 2014). WAPF discredits the soy industry through the dissemination of misinformation in the form of anecdotal testimonies, untrue claims, or evidence based on flawed experiments. The organization’s facade of neutrality deceives passive consumers who do not engage or question any of their claims. Similar to the war against genetically modified organisms (Wilcox, 2011), the soy industry also receives accusations of environmental degradation and harm to health. In this circumstance, most of the myths and hysteria stem from one source. WAPF utilizes the public’s trust and limited knowledge to disseminate their own narrative of soy and advance their personal agenda (profit). This is not to say that WAPF only spread lies but that the existence of political ties and lobbying efforts between organizations and larger industries raises questions of equity. An impartial investigation of the scientific literature reveals the extent to which researchers have uncovered the truth surrounding soy’s effects on men’s reproductive health.
Finally, I will conclude my discussion of soy fear-mongering with a conscientious review of the scientific literature surrounding the effects of soy on men’s health. Although the interest in soy’s effect on general health has grown in the past decades, hardly any experiment based studies have been able to arrive at a solid conclusion. Studies run by Mitchell et al. (2001), Messina (2010), and Hamilton-Reeves et al. (2010) found that higher soy intake had no marked effect on men’s reproductive hormone levels nor did it have a statistically significant effect on men’s reproductive health or virility. Along the same lines, Adgent et al. (2011) found no association between early-life exposure to soy and altered play behavior in boys. The one article with an statistically significant difference was a study done by Chavarro et al. (2008), which found that an increase in soy intake was correlated with a subsequent decrease in sperm concentration. Even so, the researchers failed to support evidence for causation or provide a proposed mechanism. Unfortunately, most articles claimed lack of research as the main cause behind the inability to come to any substantive conclusions (Tham et al., 1998; Setchell, 1998; Cornwell et al., 2003). Ultimately, this survey of the research behind soy’s effect on men’s health was aimed at contrasting the hard facts against the misunderstandings and misinformation produced by the fear mongering from both the public and the adversaries of the soy industry.
In conclusion, this paper aimed to link the persistence of soy fear-mongering in the United States to misconceptions about soy due to the oversimplification of sex hormones as well as the deliberate misinformation from the adversaries of the soy. A discussion of hegemonic masculinity was included and should also be included in future papers that address the intersection between soy and its deeper racial implications, such as the association of higher dietary soy intake with effeminacy in South Korean men. The fear-mongering of soy serves as one of many examples where myths continue to circulate despite lack of evidence. Therefore, I implore readers to research and critically analyze all claims before making any assumptions of truth and add to the research efforts intended to uncover the truth behind the effects of soy.
- Adgent, M. A., Daniels, J. L., Edwards, L. J., Siega-Riz, A. M., & Rogan, W. J. (2011). Early-lifesoy exposure and gender-role play behavior in children. Environmental Health
- Perspectives,119(12), 1811-1816. doi:10.1289/ehp.1103579
- Beasley, C. (2008). Rethinking hegemonic masculinity in a globalizing world. Men and
- Masculinities,11(1), 86–103. doi:10.1177/1097184X08315102
- Brzezinski, A., & Debi, A. (1999). Phytoestrogens: The ‘natural’ selective estrogen receptor modulators European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive
- Biology,85(1), 47-51. doi:10.1016/S0301-2115(98)00281-4.
- Burgess, L. (2018, January 17). Phytoestrogens: Benefits, risks, and food list. Medical News
- Today. (D. R. Wilson Ph.D., Ed.). Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320630.php
- Chavarro, J. E., Toth, T. L., Sadio, S. M., & Hauser, R. (2008). Soy food and isoflavone intake in relation to semen quality parameters among men from an infertility clinic. Human Reproduction,23(11), 2584-2590. doi:10.1093/humrep/den243