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J Nutr. 2010 Jul;140(7):1350S-4S. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.118315. Epub 2010 May 19.

A brief historical overview of the past two decades of soy and isoflavone research.

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  • 1Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350, USA. markm@olympus.net

Abstract

During the past 20 years, a remarkable amount of research into the health effects of soy consumption has been conducted, which in large part can be attributed to the presence of isoflavones in the soybean. Isoflavones first came to the attention of the scientific community in the 1940s because of fertility problems observed in sheep grazing on a type of isoflavone-rich clover. In the 1950s, as a result of their estrogenic effects in rodents, isoflavones were studied as possible growth promoters for use by the animal feed industry, although shortly thereafter, it was shown that isoflavones could also function as antiestrogens. Despite this early work, it was not until the 1990s, largely because of research sponsored by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, that the role of soyfoods in disease prevention began to receive widespread attention. Subsequently, isoflavones and soyfoods were being studied for their ability to alleviate hot flashes and inhibit bone loss in postmenopausal women. In 1995, soy protein attracted worldwide attention for its ability to lower cholesterol. At this same time, isoflavones began to be widely discussed as potential alternatives to conventional hormone therapy. In 2002, it was hypothesized that individuals possessing the intestinal bacteria capable of converting the soybean isoflavone daidzein into the isoflavan equol were more likely to benefit from soy intake. More recently, in vitro and animal research has raised questions about the safety of isoflavone exposure for certain subsets of the population, although the human data are largely inconsistent with these concerns.

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