Food Choices for a Soy-Free Diet

Learn the foods to avoid with a soy allergy

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Soy beans photo by Baltar / Freeimages

It seems simple at first to say that if you have a food allergy you should just avoid that food and you will be fine. But it isn't simple when it comes to a soy allergy. There are many forms of soy found in our food and it can be difficult to navigate when it comes to reading food labels and dining out.

As soy allergy is one of the most common food allergies, it is important that to understand its presence in your daily life.

Soy is found in many different products, including processed foods. It's in your diet, whether you know it or not. Especially if you opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, chances are you consume a large amount of soy. Asian cuisines use a lot of soy ingredients, but it can be found in any restaurant. It's easy to overlook if you are not familiar with what to ask when dining out. Thus, you'll need to take a close look at safe options.

Food Labels May Not List Hidden Soy

The Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act (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 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 result in an allergic reaction.

Also, 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. It may be used in waxes or horticultural oils on fruits or found in raw or frozen chicken that's processed into chicken broth. This can put those with a soy allergy at risk for an allergic reaction despite believing they read the labels and were informed.

Some manufacturers 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,” or “produced in a facility that also processes soy.” In general, these warnings are voluntary. On the other hand, some manufacturers may not 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). Found in miso soup, this paste is typically made from fermented soybeans and other ingredients such as barley, buckwheat, millet, and rye.
  • Natto: A Japanese health food made with fermented soybeans and beneficial bacteria.
  • Nimame
  • Okara
  • Shoyu: This is a natural soy sauce made from soybeans, roasted hard red wheat, sea salt, and water. It is less salty and thicker than commercially-prepared soy sauce.
  • Soy sauce
  • Soya
  • Soybean (curds, granules)
  • Tamari: Like soy sauce, tamari is made from fermented soybeans with the addition of wheat. More soybeans are used and less wheat, making tamari thicker and less salty than soy sauce.
  • Tempeh: This is made from cooked and fermented soybeans which are shaped into a patty, like a firm veggie burger. Tempeh has a nutty flavor.
  • Teriyaki sauce: This sauce usually contains soy sauce as one of the ingredients and also has garlic, ginger, and sugar.
  • 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)
  • Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

Possible Soy Ingredients

There are a number of ingredients that 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: These flavor additions to products may contain soy ingredients. Check with the manufacturer about what constitutes "natural flavors" if you are unsure.
  • Stabilizer
  • Thickener
  • Vegetable gum, starch, shortening, or oil
  • Vitamin E

Foods That Likely Contain Soy

You might be surprised to learn that a number of common foods often contain some form of soy. It is important to be extra cautious about eating these 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: Hydrolyzed soy protein may be present to enhance the flavor of deli meats.
  • Energy bars, nutrition bars: Soy protein isolate may be included as a way to boost the overall protein content in energy bars. Soy lecithin may be added as an emulsifier.
  • Hamburger meat and buns: Some fast food restaurants include soy flour in their buns and soy protein as an extender in hamburger beef. Make sure you understand the allergen labeling requirements for fast food and chain restaurants.
  • Imitation dairy foods, such as soy milk, vegan cheese, or vegan ice cream
  • Infant formula
  • Margarine
  • Mayonnaise
  • Meat products with fillers like burgers or sausages
  • Nutrition supplements (vitamins)
  • Peanut butter and peanut butter substitutes: Soy protein is added to boost the protein content and as an emulsifier to keep the ingredients from separating.
  • Protein powders: This is an umbrella term for many different sources of protein, including soy, milk, whey, casein, rice, and others. Always check for soy protein powder.
  • Sauces, gravies, and soups
  • Smoothies
  • Vegetable broth
  • Vegetarian meat substitutes: veggie burgers, imitation chicken patties, imitation lunch meats, imitation bacon bits, etc.

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 be found in things like lip balm and cosmetics. A careful review of these products can help you avoid an unexpected reaction.

Cross-Reactivity

Some people with peanut allergies may also be allergic to soy protein. People with soy allergies may cross-react with peanuts or other legumes, such as beans or peas. However, most people with soy allergy can safely tolerate other legumes because the legume family has over 30 species. If you suspect an allergy to another legume, you should investigate this legume separately to determine if you have sensitivity. Don’t assume you are allergic to the broad category of beans and legumes just because you have a soy or peanut allergy—you will unnecessarily restrict your diet, which could cause nutritional deficiencies down the road.

Non-Soy Protein Sources for Vegetarians

If you have a soy allergy, you must avoid tofu and tempeh, which are found in most textured vegetable protein meat substitutes and many vegetarian convenience foods. Instead, you can choose from these eight high-protein foods on a vegetarian diet:

  • Milk and Eggs: Lacto-ovo-vegetarians and use these as a rich source of protein and vitamin B-12, which isn't found in plant protein sources. The caveat is that milk and eggs are often also allergens and some people will be sensitive to them as well as soy.
  • Beans: One cup of cooked black beans provides 15 grams of protein. You can enjoy many varieties of this inexpensive source of protein, iron, folate, and magnesium.
  • Nuts: Nuts are common allergens and so they can't be enjoyed by everyone. However, they are rich in protein and nutrients such as vitamin E and phosphorus. You an also find nut butters and nut flour.
  • Seitan: This is made from wheat flour gluten and is often used as a vegetarian meat substitute. You will have to check to ensure it isn't adulterated with added soy. You can make your own seitan from vital wheat gluten at home.
  • Whole Wheat: Look for whole grain products rather than refined. You can enjoy 7.5 grams of protein in one cup of whole wheat pasta and 3 grams in one ounce of whole wheat bread with wheat berries. Whole wheat is a great source of fiber, selenium, and manganese.
  • Quinoa: This ancient Incan grain is nutritionally complete. One cup of quinoa has 23 grams of protein and it is high in fiber, magnesium, and phosphorus.
  • Flaxseed: Ground flaxseed is an easy way to add protein and fiber to a smoothie, and you can bake it into baked goods.
  • Oatbran: The bran is removed from processed instant oats, but you can add it back in for a protein boost or use it in baked goods.

Soy Allergy in Infants and Children

Soy protein may cause a digestive disorder in childhood called food-protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES). Infants can get a similar set of symptoms from cow’s milk protein, known as cow’s milk protein-induced enterocolitis. About 10 percent to 14 percent of babies who are allergic to cow’s milk develop an allergy to soy when given soy-based infant formulas. The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2008 submitted new guidelines: For infants with a cow’s milk allergy, an extensively hydrolyzed (the protein is chemically broken down) cow’s milk protein formula should be considered instead of soy formula.

A Word From Verywell

It can be challenging to completely remove soy from your diet as it is present in many processed foods. You must become a sleuth at reading food labels, and you will need to take precautions when dining away from home.

Sources:

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Soy Allergy. https://www.foodallergy.org/allergens/soy-allergy.

Joneja JV. The Health Professional's Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2013.

Sicherer SH, Acebal ML, Sampson HA. Food Allergies: a Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2013. 

UCSF Medical Center. A Guide to Foods Rich in Soy. https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/a_guide_to_foods_rich_in_soy/.

USDA. USDA National Nutrient Database. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/.

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