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Originally published November 16, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Page modified November 16, 2012 at 1:31 PM

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Let's talk about the vices and virtues of soy

"A lot of times it's soy protein isolate, a powder made from protein isolated from the soybean," says Cynthia Lair, an associate professor in nutrition at Bastyr University Lair said. "It's not something you could make in your kitchen in your wildest dreams."

Special to The Seattle Times

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THIS IS A story of self-diagnosis. I am neither doctor nor nutritionist and relied solely on the occasionally dubious power of the Internet.

A couple of years ago, I got eczema on my elbows, upper arms and knees. I have suffered from the itchy skin condition before, but this was the worst I had ever experienced. I was miserable, waking up in the middle of the night and complaining all day to anyone who would listen. My doctor offered me some topical steroids, but the word "steroids" gives me the willies, and the relief was temporary. I was convinced there had to be another way.

My sister thought I should look at my diet. What had I changed recently? I realized I had been drinking a lot of soy milk. I was struggling with dairy, and for several weeks had gotten into the habit of two or three soy lattes a week.

I looked up eczema and food allergies, and landed on a few different naturopath pages. Soy wasn't high on the list, but it was a potential culprit. My sister pointed out that soy milk is really processed.

I was desperate enough. I went back to black coffee and within a week, the eczema disappeared.

I'm not here to make soy evil. I still eat tofu and drink soy milk on occasion; I most likely am sensitive to soy, and my body reacted to the buildup in my system of all those lattes. But until my soy milk revelation, I had thought soy was super healthy. I am not alone. Cynthia Lair, an associate professor in nutrition at Bastyr University, said the soy lobby did a great job in the 1990s of convincing people that soy is a health food.

Soy is not the problem, she said. The problem is people have put soy into everything on the pretense that it's healthy. But look closer at vegetarian burgers, hot dogs and soy cheese, she said.

"A lot of times it's soy protein isolate, a powder made from protein isolated from the soybean," Lair said. "It's not something you could make in your kitchen in your wildest dreams."

Parents often tell Lair they give their kids soy milk. When she asks why, they tell her they heard it's good.

"I find people make a lot of semiconscious decisions about what they think is good to eat not based on anything but hearsay or marketing," she said.

Most soy milk sold these days has added sugar and is not something you could make at home — Lair's standard for real food. Homemade soy milk is chalky and tastes like beans. Cow's milk already has vitamin D and calcium, but those nutrients have to be added to soy milk. If your kid is allergic to cow's milk, then don't drink milk, Lair said.

Soy milk, she cautioned, is "something that's been doctored to sell."

Soybeans, like dairy, also are difficult to digest. Traditional forms of soy that have been made for centuries, like miso, tempeh and tofu, are good choices that already have broken down the bean.

The other challenge with soy is that most of the soy crop in the U.S. is genetically modified. There is no data proving whether genetically modified crops are safe, said Kathy Abascal, author of "To Quiet Inflammation." She chooses only organic soy.

At the same time, soy should not be vilified, she said.

"Most of the research on soy shows that in kind of reasonable amounts, the amount you would eat as edamame, tofu and tempeh, is actually beneficial," she said. "When we go overboard and make things like soy protein isolate and soy protein powder and soy capsules, we move into uncharted territory."

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: papercraneyoga@gmail.com.

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