Unpacking Soy’s Role in Ultra-Processed Foods

For Immediate Release

Monday, September 11, 2023
U.S. Soy Staff

Learn how soy's nutritional value, health benefits, affordability, accessibility, and sustainability help make it a solution for combating food insecurity and promoting a healthier future.
Conversations around ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, increased when Brazilian researchers created NOVA, a food classification system that evaluates foods solely on the degree to which they have been processed, not on nutrient content. By nature of design, this classification system can unfortunately discredit processed foods, like plant-based and dairy alternatives.

UPFs are defined as “industrial formulations of processed food substances (i.e., oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) that contain little or no whole food, and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives” and may include foods like shelf-stable snacks, nutrition bars, meat alternatives, sweetened breakfast cereals, baked goods and more. These foods are mostly made from ingredients extracted from foods and include ingredients like added vitamins or fats. UPFs differ widely in their nutritional profile. For example, there are many UPFs that are high in protein and contain heart-healthy fats.

It’s important to remember that, though not all processed foods are ultra-processed, almost every food undergoes some level of processing whether that be freezing, pasteurization, fermentation, canning or more, which can be confusing to clients and patients.

Processed foods are accessible, convenient, and often cost-effective choices for many people but just like any food group or category, they can’t provide all the nutrients needed in a healthy diet. Helping to educate your patients or clients on overall healthy eating choices, like including nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, grains and more – and how UPFs may fit into an overall healthy eating pattern – can empower them to make healthful choices that work for their lifestyle.

You might wonder where soy fits into all of this. Soy is available in a variety of forms, from minimally processed, such as edamame and whole soybeans, to more processed, like concentrated sources of protein often found in some UPFs thanks to their functionality and nutritional benefits. In addition, soy’s reputation for being a heart healthy ingredient makes it a favorite choice among food companies. While food companies are confident in soy’s ability to produce nutritious and delicious products, some consumers may have questions about why soy is listed on the nutrition label and what its role is in UPF.

Let’s look at some commonly asked questions, so you can be fully equipped to talk to your patients or clients about the UPFs in a healthy diet, and the use of soy ingredients in UPFs.

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Why is soy used in UPFs?

Soy is available in two main forms: soy protein, which is derived from soybeans, and soybean oil, which is commonly referred to as vegetable oil. Both products have a neutral flavor and taste, making them ideal ingredients in foods. They are added to a wide array of food products for their functional properties including hydrating, solubility, colloidal stability, gelation, emulsification and foaming.1,2 

What are some health benefits of consuming soy ingredients?

Soy protein is a complete protein source and is the only plant protein that is comparable in quality to animal-based protein. Soy protein carries the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) heart health claim that states: “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”3

Soybean oil contains mostly omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. This type of fat found in soybean oil may help to lower LDL cholesterol level sand reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease when eaten in place of saturated fats. Like soy protein, soybean oil also carries an FDA heart health claim, which states: “Supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 1½ tablespoons (20.5 grams) daily of soybean oil, which contains unsaturated fat, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”4

How does soybean oil differ from other seed oils in UPFs?

While soy protein may be more closely associated with UPFs, soybean oil is also a commonly used ingredient in processed foods thanks to its functionality. But when looking at oils, some patients may think that there’s no difference between a product made with soybean oil versus one made using other seed oils, such as canola oil. However, seed oils have varying dietary fat profiles which can offer different benefits when consumed.

Soybean oil has a favorable fatty acid profile. It contains mostly omega-6 (linoleic acid) polyunsaturated fat, which can help lower cholesterol and may reduce the risk of heart attack when eaten in place of saturated fat.5 With the exception of canola oil, soybean oil has more omega-3 ALA (another type of polyunsaturated fat) than other oils.5 Omega-3 ALA intake has been associated with heart health, plus emerging research on brain health shows encouraging findings related to cognitive impairment but more research is needed before meaningful conclusions can be made.6 Omega-3s also help form the cellular membranes in all the cells in our body so your body needs it for survival.

So, are UPFs with soy ingredients healthier than those without soy?

In any food product, soy plays an important functional and nutritional role. In a nutrition bar, for example, soy protein can offer a complete protein source as well heart health benefits.

One common concern that tends to circulate around UPFs is that they may lead to an excess in calorie intake which may contribute to obesity. However, research shows that this concern did not apply to soy- based products, like soy-based burgers and soymilk, more than they do to other products made with animal-based counterparts.7 In fact, soy can deliver high-quality protein that is comparable to animal- based products and contribute to an overall healthy lifestyle.

At the end of the day, it’s all about a balanced diet and educating patients and clients to better understand the varying nutritional profiles of UPFs to figure out how they can fit into healthy eating patterns.

One easy tip is to encourage patients and clients to look at their food labels and, if a product contains soy, work with them to figure out the role soy plays in the product, and how they can fit the product into their daily diet.

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1 Morr CV. Current status of soy protein functionality in food systems. J Am Oil Chemists Soc 1990;67:265-71.

2 Thrane M, Paulsen PV, Orcutt MW, Krieger TM. Soy protein: Impacts, production, and applications. In: Nadathur SR, Wanasundara JPD, Scanlin L, eds. Sustainable Protein Sources. United Kingdom: Academic Press; 2017:23-46.

3 Food Labeling: Health Claims; Soy Protein and Coronary Heart Disease. I Federal Register: (Volumn 64, Number 206)];1999;57699-733

4 https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.cir.102.20.2555

5 Messina M, Shearer G, Petersen K. Soybean oil lowers circulating cholesterol levels and coronary heart disease risk, and has no effect on markers of inflammation and oxidation. Nutrition 2021;89:111343

6 Sala-Vila A, Fleming J, Kris-Etherton P, Ros E. Impact of α-Linolenic Acid, the Vegetable ω-3 Fatty Acid, on Cardiovascular Disease and Cognition. Adv Nutr. 2022;13(5):1584-1602. doi:10.1093/advances/nmac016

7 Messina M, Sievenpiper JL, Williamson P, Kiel J, Erdman JW. Perspective: Soy-based meat and dairy alternatives, despite classification as ultra-processed foods, deliver high-quality nutrition on par with unprocessed or minimally processed animal-based counterparts. Adv Nutr 2022.

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