Soy has had an "it's complicated" relationship status with the health world for quite a while now. Contradictory research pops up every few years, and there's plenty of misguided "well, I heard..." knowledge circulating in brunch convos everywhere. The overall takeaway, though is that, yes, soy is fine for you and a healthy part of any diet when consumed in moderation (fewer than three servings a day). (See: The Truth About Soy for the whole picture.)
But to add to the soy confusion, the Food and Drug Administration just did something unprecedented. For the first time ever, the FDA is proposing a revocation of an authorized health claim.
In 1999, they approved for use on packaged soy products the claim that soy protein can help reduce heart disease, but now they're saying "nvm." This is kind of a big deal, because in the 27 years that the FDA has been in charge of regulating health claims on food packaging, only 12 such health claims have been approved (ex: calcium and vitamin D help reduce the risk of osteoporosis). Now, one of those might get axed.
"While some evidence continues to suggest a relationship between soy protein and a reduced risk of heart disease—including evidence reviewed by the FDA when the claim was authorized—the totality of currently available scientific evidence calls into question the certainty of this relationship," wrote Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the FDA release.
The FDA reports that some studies published after they approved the health claim show inconsistent findings regarding the ability of soy protein to lower heart-damaging LDL cholesterol.
Before you throw out all your tofu, listen up. It's important to realize that this doesn't suggest that soy increases heart disease risk, but rather that it doesn't reduce it. Sure, soy might not have the ability to drop-kick your heart disease risk—but that's asking a lot of one single food anyway. (Your best bet is to eat plenty of heart-healthy fruits and veggies and whole grains, and get your heart pumping.) Plus, it's a source of high-quality protein and fiber—especially for people with a vegan or vegetarian diet.
And even though the FDA is stripping soy of its "authorized health claim," it still has the opportunity to remain a "qualified health claim." The latter requires a lower scientific standard of evidence and would still allow products to use specific language that explains the limited (but not definite) evidence linking consumption of soy protein with heart disease risk reduction.