Soya could be harmful to infants

Related tags Immune system science

Researchers are advising pregnant mothers not to eat soya after an
animal study found that genistein, a phytoestrogen present in soy,
severely damaged the sexual development of infant rats. A report on
the findings in this week's New Scientist shows that we
should re-think the use of soy-based infant formula.

Eating soya during pregnancy may damage the sexual development of unborn infants, say researchers in a report this week.

Researchers in the US found that male rats whose mothers ate a chemical found in soya suffered severe damage to their sexual development.

The animal study does not prove that soya has this effect on people, and no such effects have been observed in Asia where soya is a big part of many people's diets, noted the report on the study in New Scientist​ magazine. But the researchers say it is enough to spark concern and deserves further study.

"The urologists on this project are actually advising pregnant women to avoid soya,"​ said Sabra Klein at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland.

Synthetic oestrogen-like chemicals from cosmetics, plastics and birth control pills have previously been blamed for changing the gender of fish in polluted streams and even lowering sperm counts in people. There are also concerns about natural oestrogen mimics, or phytoestrogens, which are found in significant amounts in soya in the form of genistein.

Large amounts of genistein are found in some baby formula milks and in the supplements that some women take as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy. While results have been mixed, some studies suggest it can affect the immune system and the risk of cancer. There has also been concern among some experts about the use of soy formula - a scientific advisory panel to the UK government this week warned there is 'clear evidence' of a potential risk from soya-based formula milk.

Klein's team fed pregnant female rats genistein-laced diets equivalent to that in a typical Western or Asian diet. They found that male rats exposed to such levels in the womb grew up to have larger prostate glands and smaller testes. Their sperm counts were normal and when placed with females they behaved as if they wanted to mate, but none was able to ejaculate.

Also, the effects were just as severe in males that did not eat genistein after weaning as it was in those that continued eating it. This suggests exposure in the womb and during breast feeding has the biggest impact.

Chris Kirk, who studies plant oestrogens at the UK's University of Birmingham, told New Scientist: "These are serious questions that need answering."

The report rightfully points out that there are no such dramatic effects in the sons of Asian and vegetarian women. But one study has linked a vegetarian diet during pregnancy to an increased risk of hypospadias - a condition where the urethra emerges along the shaft of the penis rather than at the tip. Some researchers suspect this is due to the genistein in soya.

Other aspects of Klein's study are problematic too. The group found that genistein-exposed male rats had a slightly larger thymus gland, an organ that produces immune cells (Molecular Medicine, vol 8, p 742). That directly contradicts a previous study suggesting genistein shrinks the thymus (New Scientist, 25 May 2002). The levels of genistein and method of delivery were different in each study, said Klein, but she could not explain the discrepancy, according to the New Scientist​ report.

Another complicating factor is that in Klein's study, moderate levels of genistein had a bigger effect than a huge dose. If this holds true in people it may prove impossible to find out just what the effects of eating soya are.

The team is to report the full findings in a forthcoming issue of Urology​.

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