In October 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration authorized the use on food labels of health claims associated with soy protein and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Several studies have indicated that a total daily intake of 25 g of soy protein paired with a low-fat diet resulted in clinically important reductions of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Soybeans are a rich source of isoflavones, a class of phytoestrogens found predominantly in legumes and beans. Soy isoflavones are heterocyclic phenols with structural similarity to estradiol-17β and selective estrogen receptor modulators. Actions at the cellular level depend on the target tissue, receptor status of the tissue, and the level of endogenous estrogen. Studies of soy-based diets evaluating the relation between soy consumption and serum lipid concentrations revealed that soy consumption significantly decreased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. However, the soy isoflavones do not increase high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or triglyceride levels. The effects of soy protein on other target tissues reflect estrogenlike agonist and antagonist effects. Epidemiological studies suggest a protective effect of soy protein on breast tissue as evidenced by the lower rates of breast cancer in East Asian countries where soy is a predominant part of the diet. Data available from human studies on the effect of isoflavones on osteoporosis are limited, and additional studies are needed to support a role in osteoporosis prevention. Thus far, there is no evidence for a stimulatory effect of isoflavones on the endometrium. A few studies reveal a minimal effect of soy on hot flashes, with soy reducing hot flashes 45% and placebo causing a 30% reduction compared with an approximate 70% reduction in hot flashes with estrogen replacement therapy. Evidence from laboratory studies reveals neither a positive nor a negative effect of soy isoflavones on cognition. To date, no adverse effects of short- or long-term use of soy proteins are known in humans. The only adverse effects known are those reported in animals (infertility in sheep and quails grazing on phytoestrogen-rich pastures). In conclusion, soy isoflavones are biologically active compounds. Current data are insufficient to draw definitive conclusions regarding the use of isoflavones as an alternative to estrogen for hormone replacement in postmenopausal women. Although epidemiological and basic laboratory studies allude to the possible protective effects of soy isoflavones at specific target tissues, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials are necessary to address these important issues.
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