So what’s the big deal if the majority of our food contains soy? Well, if you’re like Kathy Kottaras’ daughter M, it may mean yet another ear infection and up to six months of antibiotics. Why? Both M and her dad, Matthew Frey, have soy allergies.

Matthew and M struggled with constant illness. For Matthew it was digestive problems and for M it was sinus infections, ear aches and congestion. Matthew’s visits to the doctor always led to more antibiotics and it was only after an elimination diet that he finally figured out he was allergic to soy. I chatted with Kathy Kottaras of Subtract Soy Now to understand what’s going on with soy in our foods, why it’s problematic, and why she’s fighting to get soy out of America’s most popular cookies.

Why is Soy Problematic?

As an avid label reader, I try to avoid soybean oils and hydrolyzed soy protein but didn’t give much thought to how prevalent soy is in our foods. Kathy simply states, “Soy is everywhere. It’s in our foods and even our skin products.” It’s extremely cheap and thus used abundantly. She points to a statistic by Raj Patel, author of Stuffed & Starving, who wrote that soy is in nearly 75% of products on supermarket shelves and in nearly 100% of fast food.  Wow. This means that majority of us are eating soy everyday, multiple times a day.

The majority of commercially produced soy derivatives are highly processed and, to make it even more scary, upwards of 91% of soy grown in the US is genetically modified. Quite simply, the safety of consuming huge amounts of highly-processed soy is unknown.

 “Soy isoflavones, found in most soy products, are compounds that resemble estrogen, and in fact bind to human estrogen receptors. But it is unclear whether these so-called phytoestrogens actually behave like estrogen in the body or only fool it into thinking they’re estrogen. Either way the phytoestrogens might have an effect (good or bad) on the growth of certain cancers, the symptoms of menopause and the functions of the endocrine system. Because of these uncertainties, the FDA has declined to grant GRAS (‘generally regarded as safe’) status to soy isoflavones used as a food additive.”

- Michael Pollan

I was shocked to learn that scientists have identified 15 allergenic proteins in soy. “Highly processed soybean oil is supposed to have all those amino acids removed, but my husband is still sensitive to them, “remarks Kathy.

How to Know if You May Have a Sensitivity to Soy

Soy is one of the 8 most common ingredients that trigger a food allergy (the other 7 are: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat). Kathy comments that in spite of this, we’re not hearing about soy allergies in the same frequency as lactose intolerance or celiac disease/gluten sensitivities.

According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of American, soy allergy symptoms include: eczema, hives, asthma, sinusitis, anaphylactic shock, digestive symptoms including nausea and diarrhea, acne, canker sores, and colitis. How many people do you know personally that suffer from at least one of these symptoms? Makes me wonder how many of us are walking around with an undiagnosed soy sensitivity.

Real Life with a Soy Allergy

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions related to soy is that if a food doesn’t have soy beans in it, it’s soy free. “My friends will read labels looking for soy and totally miss all the ingredients that can be derived from soy,” says Kathy. She points out that reading labels is not easy and that even when calling a food manufacturer, many times they don’t even know if an ingredient was derived from soy.

Soy derived ingredients (see list below) are found in thousands of foods. As a mother and wife to soy-allergy-sufferers, Kathy has become a master at living without. My first question to her was, “Do you ever go out to eat?” Kathy told me while going out is tough, finding a few restaurants and entrees that are “safe” is hugely helpful. She said that social situations are the worst. Even when going over to a friend’s house can prove difficult since most people don’t know how to look for soy on a label. Simple things like baking a soy-free cupcake to bring along to birthday parties for M are critical in helping her 5-year-old not feel totally deprived.

Tips on Living Soy Free

Kathy has had to become an advocate for her family and offered these tips on living with a soy allergy (or any food allergy for that matter):

Read everything – as an English teacher Kathy considers herself an excellent reader. However, when it came to reading ingredients on every item, it was like learning a whole new language.
Cook & shop at farmers’ markets – If you cook, you’ll know exactly what’s in your food. The awesome thing about Farmers Market is there is no label to read!
Be vocal and open to the conversation – Kathy said that when they first learned of the allergy she was embarrassed to talk about it with friends and colleagues. She feared that people wouldn’t believe her. She found that while there will always be doubters, “most people get it” and are often curious. These days it is not uncommon to know someone with a food allergy. Being open to the conversation helps others to understand what you are dealing with and spreads awareness of food allergies in general.
Talk to the chef – When in any restaurant, Kathy and Matthew have to ask a million questions to ensure they’ll be dining soy-free. Kathy explains that the restaurant server will likely not know how every food is prepared, so talking to the chef is crucial.
Go to Disney – This one surprised me. Kathy said that Disneyland and Disneyworld are wonderful for children with food allergies. They know all the top 8 allergies and the staff is highly knowledgeable about which foods contain them and not. This even applies to the smaller food court-type eateries. She said that the chef will often come out just to make sure to prepare something they can eat.
Call the food manufacturer – Want to know if the “natural flavors” used in those crackers are derived from soy? Kathy and Matthew are constantly calling food companies to find out.
Check your toiletries & drugs – Matthew learned that even using skin care containing soy products would trigger his allergy so reading the ingredients was important. He learned that brands like Murad and even basic ibuprofen contains soy.

The Girl Scout Cookie Campaign

updated 2/14/12

Kathy was a Girl Scout as a child and M will be old enough to join a troop this Fall. Of the 16 varieties of Girl Scout Cookies, every single one contains soy (and gluten too for that matter). Like other food manufacturers, the Girl Scouts use soy-derived ingredients because they are cheap. Initially, Kathy started her own petition to ask Girl Scouts to remove soy from their cookies. When I asked her how she’d feel if they removed soy from one of the cookies, she said she’d be overjoyed, “It would be a great compromise.” But it goes beyond soy as the uber popular treat contains a variety of ingredients derived from top 8 allergens. Kathy excitedly expressed how wonderful it would be if the Girl Scouts came out with an allergy-free cookie. She emailed me to let me know she has joined forces with an existing petition to encourage the Girl Scouts create an allergy free cookie so all the Girl Scouts can enjoy the cookies they sell. If you agree,  make your voice heard and sign the petition.

Soy Can be Found In:

Get Involved!

Visit: and check out Kathy’s great site

Take the Quiz and find out how much you know about soy.

Follow Kathy on Twitter @SubtractSoyNow

Sign the Petition to encourage the Girl Scouts to sell an allergen free cookie on (link updated 2/14/12)

Join the campaign to get GMOs labled at Just Label It


Sources: All soy facts above obtained from Subtract Soy Now. Main image & thumbnail by FotoosVanRobin via Flickr