Help me cut out soy
February 3, 2018 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I've been experiencing debilitating migraines for the past few months. By diligently tracking my food and symptoms, I've identified soy as a trigger. I know the obvious things to cut out (soy milk, edamame, soy sauce, teriyaki, etc.). Where else is soy lurking? And what are safe options are when going to restaurants whose cuisines are often soy-heavy (e.g. Chinese, Korean)?
posted by radioamy to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One of its most insidious forms is as soy lecithin, a common emulsifier used in candy bars, baked goods, etc. Fortunately, many products list common allergens (wheat/soy/shellfish/etc.) on the packaging near the ingredients list.
posted by Lycaon_pictus at 6:35 PM on February 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

The United States requires that several potential allergens (including soy) be listed clearly on labels - there are apparently two ways to do it (example), though I usually see #2. If you do an image search for FDA allergen labeling you can see more examples. So, it’s pretty easy to avoid soy in packaged foods by reading labels - avoiding it in restaurant food is going to be a lot more difficult. Soy lecithin and soybean oil are incredibly common ingredients, and various forms of soy protein show up in a lot of foods as well.

Many observant Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat soy or soy derivatives during Passover, so foods that are certified kosher for Passover (which is different than just the kosher k) should be safe, though they may be hard to find 11 months of the year.

You might also try to experiment to see if you can tolerate any processed soy derivatives. I had to cut out soy protein for a while (my breastfed baby couldn’t digest it), but found that soybean oil and soy lecithin were fine; ymmv.

If you go to any restaurant - not just a soy heavy one - and you need to avoid all forms of soy, make sure to ask about cooking oil and whether they use any processed or packaged products in their dishes, including things like sauces, curry pastes, etc.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:47 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, you’ll need to get in the habit of checking ingredients lists of everything. Soy protein shows up in a lot of foods to boost the protein content - I’ve seen it in a lot of breakfast cereals and breads.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:51 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have an anaphylactic allergy to soy. It gets easier to suss out and avoid! Unfortunately, I think Chinese food might be out for you because of the prevalence of soy in marinades and sauces and the danger of cross-contamination, but I’m very comfortable bringing my own soy-free soy sauce (IT’S A THING) and having sushi at a few allergy-aware sushi places. I’m less familiar with Korean food so I can’t speak to that. Just a note that because people with celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities can’t have standard soy sauce, some restaurants carry regular soy sauce and gluten-free soy sauce and if you tell them you’re allergic to soy they’ll say oh we have special soy sauce for allergies, you can have this. IT STILL HAS SOY IN IT.

I don’t know if this will apply to you, but a bunch of moisturizers and beauty products have soy in them, so you may have to read labels there too.
posted by kate blank at 8:28 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Check your vitamin and mineral supplements.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:42 PM on February 3, 2018

Reading labels is simple enough, but I imagine where you will accidentally encounter it most when dining out is soybean oil. According to this, however, soy oil doesn't affect most people with soy allergies, so you might want to narrow down whether that's a trigger or not for you.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:47 PM on February 3, 2018

don't forget tea. believe it or not, many boxes of tea now have soy lecithin...

Now, beware soy is in everything now. it is a flavorless but very harmful product. They are now using it even in hot sauce to stretch out the product.

Chocolate... i would say 99% of the chocolate made is filled with soy. they say they use it as an emulsifier, however, if they just left the coco butter in the product, they would not need soy.

They can get paid twice for each bean by separating the cocoa butter... from the cocoa solids (the chocolate). Then they sell the cocoa solids to chocolate makers, and the cocoa butter to the skincare industry.

There are some wonderful chocolates to eat that are single source and delicious dark chocolates (even some milk, though i can't vouch for that since i don't eat dairy. Some excellent brands ...

taza 84% hati dark chocolate (yummy)

anything by equal exchange (they also include a bit about the farms where the beans come from)

Cocoa Parlor chocolate... fabulous..

soy is also spelled soya...

they are putting this in everything. as someone who can't eat soy... i pretty much eat only what i make now. Or, when in portland, I go to the cultured caveman and you will not find any gluten, dairy, soy, and all that... but you will have some great food!

you won't believe how many supplements have soy lecithin..

smiles your way!
posted by wildpetals at 11:53 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately I think you'll have a lot of trouble eating out. I have to been strictly gluten free and I haven't eaten Chinese food since then (I do not count PF Changs). Unfortunately cross contamination is too much of risk and there's even less awareness than with gluten.
posted by kitten magic at 1:24 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't be afraid to ask in restaurants if a dish has soy/ soya in it. A number of the larger chain type restaurants have started providing allergy free menus.
posted by 92_elements at 1:31 AM on February 4, 2018

Yeah, this was how I learnt to cook my own food from scratch. It was just too much of a bother to read all the labels, and I hated being that person in restaurants. I found that I could eat some things at Vietnamese restaurants, and that good Italian restaurants including pizzerias were fine. Chinese was out. I only had sashimi at Japanese places. At first I really hated it. So many of my favorite food had soy in them, and Chinese was my favorite restaurant food, but eventually it became a different lifestyle — one that was free of the rashes and asthma I dealt with my whole life.
Beginning to cook from scratch I found a lot of inspiration in Mediterranean food, beginning with Italian. Generally traditional cuisines from areas where soy wasn't grown before industrialized agriculture are fine. I read a lot of cookbooks, but after a while I also developed my own simple everyday dishes.
After 15 years of this, I tried eating some sushi dipped in soy sauce at a party, and I realized I had grown out of it: nothing happened. Since then I have used light soy sauce in my own cooking and I've been to dim sum places some times, and to Japan! I asked the doctor who said yes, you can grow out of it, though one has to be aware that it may reappear.
posted by mumimor at 3:27 AM on February 4, 2018

It is worth figuring out for sure what you need to avoid soy-wise, especially if you are in the US. The prevalence of soy in so many products (bread, cereal, energy bars, baked goods, among other things listed above) is definitely an American phenomenon— soy is in everything here because it is cheap, and it is cheap because of farm subsidies.

Beware of vegan baked goods in particular- while non-soy versions exist, and I’ve had a few tasty ones myself, plenty use soy milk or soy cheese/yogurt as substitutes.

It is indeed much easier to avoid if soybean oil and soy lecithin aren’t trouble for you. Oil though can be a common cross contamination source at restaurants.

Also if this is something you are experimentally figuring out for yourself you might find just strongly reducing the soy in your diet is enough (you may have a sensitivity instead of a true allergy). I am not allergic to soy, but my asthma is exacerbated by high amounts of soy protein. So I don’t eat tofu, soy milk, anything with soy protein (eg many prepackaged breads), tempeh, Clif bars etc. But soy sauce is apparently fermented enough that it doesn’t bother me, and the only trouble I’ve had with soy oil is when I don’t know what else has been cooked in it. (I haven’t tried natto in several decade so I can’t say about that).

Note what I said is terrible advice if you have an actual allergy (especially one with anaphylactic response)— but it seems you may not know yet, and avoiding some forms of soy is much harder than avoiding others (eg soy lecithin is in many things).
posted by nat at 3:38 AM on February 4, 2018

I sometimes react to soy with allergic responses, so I try to avoid it. It's not predictable for me.

The allergy label in the US is not required to list soy if the ingredients "only" include soybean oil or soy lecithin. Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is soy. Frequently, "vegetable oil" on labels is soy. Watch out for butter substitutes, like the country crock spread my parents use. Theo brand chocolate is soy-free. Miso is soy. A lot of frozen foods contain soy.

Dining out: steamed rice and veggies. No sauce. Plain noodles. No sauce. Stir fries are iffy. Mr. Meat made me homemade pad thai this year for Christmas, and it was fantastic - I hadn't had it since I discovered my soy problems. The website "dining without soy" was a great resource when I started out.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 7:21 AM on February 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm also allergic to soy. The big surprising things I've found have been that a lot of Bigelow brand teas have soy lecithin in them; most chocolate is unsafe; and some beers have soy ingredients.

As far as Chinese and Korean food, get a bottle of coconut aminos (works awesome as a soy sauce substitution) and start learning to make it at home. Depending on where you live, there may be some local places that are allergy-aware enough to use this stuff - I would look for hipster joints rather than old-school family restaurants and I'd ask a LOT of questions.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:18 PM on February 4, 2018

You can’t trust restaurants to know if something has soy. Almost no restaurants make things completely from scratch, and pretty much everything that’s not 100% from scratch has soy in it.

And people (restaurant employees) who don’t have a soy allergy don’t realize how many hidden places soy is. I worked for a restaurant that was assuring customers they only used olive oil. They would even show the olive oil can to customers. One day I read the label, and it was actually a mixture of olive oil and soy oil. They buy this oil from the same company that supplies most of the restaurants in America. Soy is in almost every oil, sauce, and salad dressing that restaurants use, even if they make their own. It’s simply not economical for them to use pure olive or other oils.

And as mentioned, lecithin is in everything. Soy allergy is why I cook almost all my food from scratch.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:17 AM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, hi! I made a similar discovery about five years ago. As some people have mentioned, you owe it to yourself to figure out what kinds of soy, exactly, are triggering migraines for you. For instance, I found out that soy milk and soybean oil were triggers for me, but soy lecithin was not. I also discovered that at the time almost every packaged or prepared food had soybean oil or soy protein in it, from snack food to baking mixes to super-processed chicken. (This is becoming less of a problem over time as some foods are replacing soy oil with palm oil.) A surprising number of products also have soy sauce in them as an umami booster -- nearly 100% of store-bought seitans and beef jerky have this problem, for instance.

I also found that once I had my migraines under better control for a few years, I could eat (small!) quantities of soy without triggering a migraine, particularly if I was clear of all other triggers. Which is just to say that, even though you might need to be super strict now, you may not have to cut all these foods out for all time forever.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 3:47 PM on February 5, 2018

Wow, this is all really helpful! Thanks everyone for your insight.

I just found out I have to go to a company event soon at The Slanted Door which is a fancy Vietnamese restaurant...sounds like I need to be very careful about what I pick! (Hot peppers are also a trigger for me...)
posted by radioamy at 12:25 PM on February 6, 2018

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