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Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1664S-1667S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736T. Epub 2009 Apr 8.

Is equol the key to the efficacy of soy foods?

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  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Nutritional Sciences Program, Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA. jlampe@fhcrc.org


Gut bacterial modification of soy isoflavones produces metabolites that differ in biological activity from the parent compounds. Hydrolysis of glycosides results in more active compounds. In contrast, further degradation and transformation of aglycones produce more or less active compounds, depending on the substrate metabolized and the product formed. Bacterial metabolism of soy isoflavones varies among individuals. The predominant daidzein metabolites produced by human intestinal bacteria are equol and O-desmethylangolensin. Among humans, 30-50% have the bacteria capable of producing equol and 80-90% harbor O-desmethylangolensin-producing bacteria. Factors that influence the capacity to produce equol and O-desmethylangolensin are not clearly established; however, gut physiology, host genetics, and diet are reported to contribute to interindividual differences in conversion of daidzein to equol. Effects of these phenotypes on human health are poorly characterized. Some studies in high soy-consuming populations reported an inverse association between urinary and serum equol concentrations and breast and prostate cancer risk. Furthermore, several studies of soy supplementation and bone density suggest that soy products may be more effective in maintaining bone density in equol-producing individuals. Factors that contribute to the phenotypes and the relation of these specific phenotypes to human health need to be further elucidated. The extent to which isoflavone metabolism is key to the efficacy of soy foods remains to be established.

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