The FDA wants to stop soy products from being marketed as heart healthy

The power of soy just diminished a little.
The power of soy just diminished a little.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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For over two decades, the US Food and Drug Administration has been telling the public that the soy protein found in vegan favorites such as tofu and plant-based burger patties helps reduce the risk of heart disease. Since 1990, the agency has allowed food companies to market this health claim on the labels of soy protein-based products. On Wednesday (Nov. 1) the agency announced it wants to revoke that authorization.

In recent years, new research has emerged that challenges the long-held belief that soy is especially good for the heart. To be clear, the science doesn’t link soy protein with increased risk of heart disease; it just says there’s a good chance it doesn’t do much to help, either.

Because of the contradictions—and requests from nutrition groups to reevaluate its claim—the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition decided to review the science again.

“Our review of that evidence has led us to conclude that the relationship between soy protein and heart disease does not meet the rigorous standard for an FDA-authorized health claim,” the agency said in a statement.

The distinction puts a sizable dent in the marketing power behind soy-food brands, especially those touting their products as more healthful alternatives to meat. One of the primary concerns health experts have voiced about red and processed meats are their links to cardiovascular disease. The FDA decision takes a pretty valuable arrow out of the marketing quivers of those vegan food companies.

As expected, the Soy Foods Association criticized the FDA’s decision and pointed out that 12 other countries still stand behind the claim, including Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and Chile.

To fully put an end to labels that claim soy can reduce heart disease risk, the FDA first must go through an official revocation process. That process will give the public, including industry stakeholders, a chance to submit comments to the agency to try and persuade it to keep the authorization or more forward in ditching it. The comment period will close Jan. 18.

Perhaps the public won’t really care, posits Michele Simon, who leads the Plant Based Foods Association, another industry trade group. Simon says the real value of soy protein is in reducing meat consumption. “What are consumers really interested in? They are not necessarily buying plant-based tofu products because they reduce the risk of heart disease.”