A Soy Free Diet Means More Than Just Checking for "Soy"

Asian restaurants serve soy. John Borthwick/Getty Images

It seems simple at first to say that if you have a food allergy, just avoid that food and you will be fine.  Right? Well, while that sounds easy, it is not that simple, especially when it comes to a soy allergy. There are many forms of soy and it is often difficult to navigate when it comes to labels and dining out. As a soy allergy remains among the top eight most common food allergies, it is important that we have a better understanding of its presence in our daily lives.

Soy is an ingredient that has found its way into many different products, is included in many peoples diets, and is commonplace in many restaurants. Soy can be found in many processed foods, and many people who opt for a vegetarian lifestyle consume a large amount of soy. Asian restaurants which have grown in popularity also use a lot of soy ingredients in their menu development and it can easily be overlooked for those who are not familiar on what to ask when dining there. Due to the trends in eating, for those with soy allergies, it is important to take a closer look at safe options. 

Soy Labeling

To begin with it is important for those with a soy allergy to understand the guidelines developed by the Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).  FALCPA requires manufacturers to list soy ingredients on product labels in plain, easy-to-understand language.  However, the FALCPA does not require a manufacturer whose product contains refined soy oil and/or soy  lecithin as a releasing agent to have to mention “contains soy” on their label.

This is contradictory to the research that shows that soy proteins are present in soybean oil and soy lecithin. This caveat may be due to the fact that studies are not conclusive that there is enough soy protein in these ingredients to cause a reaction in most people with soy allergies. As some people are more sensitive to soy than others, this can be problematic and cause for an allergic reaction.

In addition, the FALCPA guidelines do not apply to "raw agricultural commodities" such as fruits and vegetables in their natural state. It also does not cover eggs, milk, or meat, or other foods regulated by the USDA. This is yet another place where soy ingredients may actually be present in things like waxes or horticultural oils on fruits, or in raw or frozen chicken that has been processed in chicken broth. This can also put those with a soy allergy at risk for an allergic reaction despite believing they read the labels and were informed. 

Some manufacturers do include statements on a food label that may indicate cross contamination with soy. These statements might read:  “may contain soy,” “produced on shared equipment with soy” and “produced in a facility that also processes soy.”  These warnings are generally voluntary, so some manufacturers may not opt to include this information, even if there is soy present in their facility.

Soy In Asian Cuisine

Soy is a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, but may be difficult to recognize on a menu. It is important to know that the following items contain soy and should be avoided if you have a soy allergy:

    •    Bean sprouts

    •    Edamame (fresh soybeans)

    •    Kinako

    •    Miso (fermented soybean paste)

    •    Natto

    •    Nimame

    •    Okara

    •    Shoyu

    •    Soy sauce

    •    Soya

    •    Soybean (curds, granules)

    •    Tamari

    •    Tempeh

    •    Tofu (dofu, kori-dofu)

    •    Yuba

Soy Based Ingredients

It is not always easy to recognize the presence of soy on a label, as other words are used in its place. These  processed ingredients are soy based:

   •    Hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP)

    •    Mono- and diglycerides

    •    MSG (monosodium glutamate)

    •    Soy (albumin, cheese, fiber, grits, milk, nuts, sprouts, yogurt, ice cream, pasta)

    •    Soy lecithin 

    •    Soy protein (concentrate, hydrolyzed, isolate)

    •    Soybean oil 

    •    Teriyaki sauce

    •    Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

Possible Soy Ingredients

These ingredients may or may not contain soy. It is important to contact the manufacturer of the product to find out the source of the ingredient.

    •    Bulking agent

    •    Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP) or hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)

    •    Gum arabic

    •    Guar gum

    •    Lecithin

    •    Mixed tocopherols

    •    Natural flavoring

    •    Stabilizer

    •    Thickener

    •    Vegetable gum, starch, shortening, or oil

    •    Vitamin E

Foods That Likely Contain Soy

These foods might surprise you as they often contain some form of soy. It is important to be extra cautious about eating these foods if you are unable to get a complete ingredient list.

    •    Asian cuisine (Korean, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, etc.)

    •    Baked goods and baking mixes

    •    Bouillon cubes

    •    Candy

    •    Cereal

    •    Chicken (raw or cooked) that is processed with chicken broth

    •    Chicken broth

    •    Chocolate

    •    Deli meats

    •    Energy bars, nutrition bars

    •    Imitation dairy foods, such as soy milks, vegan cheese, or vegan ice cream

    •    Infant formula

    •    Margarine

    •    Mayonnaise

    •    Meat products with fillers, for example, burgers or sausages

    •    Nutrition supplements (vitamins)

    •    Peanut butter and peanut butter substitutes

    •    Protein powders

    •    Sauces, gravies, and soups

    •    Smoothies

    •    Vegetable broth

    •    Vegetarian meat substitutes: veggie burgers, imitation chicken patties, imitation lunch meats, imitation bacon bits, etc.


Soy is a member of the legume family, which includes other beans, peas, and peanuts. Most people with soy allergies can safely eat other legumes, however it is definitely something to approach with caution as a reaction can occur. Ask your doctor about allergy testing to determine if you are allergic to other legumes.

Soy in Your Environment

Be aware of hidden sources of soy that may be in your medicine cabinet, shower caddy, or around the house.   Soy can actually be found in things like lip balm, cosmetics and even in pet food.  A careful review of these products can help you avoid an unexpected reaction. 


The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network: www.foodallergy.org

Sicherer S. Food Allergies: A Complete Guide to Eating When Your Life Depends on It

Joneja JV. The Health Professional's Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances 


Reviewed by: Marlo Mittler, MS RD

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