Can soybeans save your health?

Recently a few major players in the agribusiness and food production realms released a statement announcing that they were entering a joint venture to produce a new type of soy bean. You may be thinking that soybeans aren’t very exciting as far as plants go but you likely wrong. While they may not be the most colorful or luxurious like others and grow low to the ground, these beans may hold the key to improved health for a lot of people with very little effort on the consumer’s part. Soy is a huge part of our diet and according the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 almost eighty percent of American fat and oil intake was from soy (Figure 1).

Monsanto and Solae released a few statements early this fall (one is linked below) highlighting the FDA approval of omega-3 fatty acid enriched soybeans. Although this is only a small step in a large battle to reform and change the nutrition profile of most Americans, it is a step in the right direction.

As recently as two hundred years ago most people across the world consumed roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids through their diet. In a recent study one scientist, A.P. Simopoulos, described how our diet has changed over the course of the last 4 million years. As we progressed from a hunter-gatherer society into the agricultural age and then into an industrialized society our diet shifted only slightly. In the last two hundred years; however, we have had a massive shift in diet (Figure 2)


The hypothetical change in diet shows a very drastic change in total fat intake, saturated fat intake, as well as changes in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Monsanto and Solae are focusing directly on the issue of the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Currently, most Western diets (US and Europe) have an approximate omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 15:1. This is drastically elevated compared to the historic ratio of 1:1 and might have a few significant consequences.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, are the precursor to a group of signaling molecules called eicosanoids. Omega-6 fatty acids are the basis for a number of inflammatory molecules, while omega-3 fatty acids are the basis for a number of anti-inflammatory molecules. The excessively high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the modern western diet may contribute to a number of inflammatory disorders commonly seen in countries with industrialized food systems. However, there is hope. The Inuits in Alaska, Japanese, and regions that consume a “Mediterranean diet” rich in omega-3 fatty acids exhibit a decrease in severity and prevalence of these disorders.

In western countries there is a high rate of many chronic inflammatory disorders. Asthma, arthritis, chronic heart disease, and some inflammatory bowel disorders have been treated with omega-3 supplementation. In a few studies which were characterized by a decrease in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio the symptoms of these diseases wer suppressed and relieved. For those with asthma, supplementing the diet with fish oil capsules rich in omega-3 fatty acids to the effect of lowering the 6 to 3 to about 5:1 reduced episodes of bronciospasm seen in asthma. Also, lowering the ratio to roughly 2.5:1 caused second episodes of symptoms related to chronic heart disease by almost seventy percent.

To bring things full circle with our initial discussion the really cool thing about the Monsanto and Solae product is that it is just as readily absorbed into the body as naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, the first step in the molecular transformation in fatty acid metabolism that forms both the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds involved the same enzyme. Delta-6-desaturase, the enzyme used to convert the most commonly eaten polyunsaturated fatty acids, alpha linolenic acid (the omega-3) and linoleic acid (the omega-6) is used to change these fatty acids into the next molecule in each sequence. The only thing is that delta-6-desaturase processes the omega-6 fatty acids at a much higher rate leading to more inflammatory molecules being produced. To short circuit this problem the engineered beans produce a omega-3 fatty acid, SDA, that bypasses this problem. By skipping the first step and allowing anti-inflammatory molecules to be produced eating products made from these beans can act in the same way as reducing the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio.

So really, our health might be as easy as a little more soy.


Monsanto. Monsanto and the Solae Company to Collaborate on Soy-based Omega-3 Portfolio.

Simopoulos, A.P. “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56 (2002): 365-79. Print.

Soberman, Roy J., and Peter Christmas. “The organization and conseqeunces of eicosanoid signalling.” The Journal of Clinical Investigation 111.8 (2003): 1107-113.

“Health Hint: The Anti-inflammatory Diet.” Welcome to AMSA. Web. 17 Nov. 2009.


~ by gwilliams10 on December 3, 2009.

4 Responses to “Can soybeans save your health?”

  1. Hi Graham!
    This was an interesting article and I liked the details you included on fatty acid metabolism. Finding ways to get more omega-3s into the diet is certainly is not a bad idea, as it seems lowering the ratio of omega6: omega 3 has some significant health benefits. However, in looking at the graph you provided of the % calories from fat/time, it looks like the main problem is with an increase in saturated fat intake, which leads to an increase in total fat intake. Taking in more omega 3s would improve the ratio of omega 3:omega 6, but it would also increase the total fat intake even more, unless the amount of omega 6 or saturated fats. Personally, I would like to see a study of changes in health that occur when omega 3 intake is increased while total fat intake is decreased, although I realize this scenario would be idealistic given our fast-food culture. Perhaps someone should engineer a cheeseburger with omega-3s instead of saturated fats? 🙂

  2. I interned with a doctor at the LSU Family Practice Residency center and he told like 80% of his patients that came into see him to take omega 3 supplements and eat more fish. He explained a lot of the same things you did: it reduces inflammation in the joints, promotes better sleep cycles, and all around make you feel better. I agree with the previous post that a cheeseburger with omega 3’s would be rather tasty. However, I ran across an artical in either popular science, discover, or scientific american (I was in an airport, bored and can’t remember which one I was reading), that linked soy intake with high estrogen levels in men which was leading to breast cancer. They have also been shown to elevate levels of isoflavones which can lead to endocrine and thyroid disorders. However, I’m sure that just like anything else, there needs to be a balance. Too much is just as bad as too little, I guess.

  3. I thought this was a really interesting article, but it really frustrated me at the same time. I did have one or two questions/things I think should have been included in the article. I am interested in how he cultivated these beans, and where he would plan to grow them. Would these enhanced beans be sent to Brazil, which is close to, if not already the number one provider of soy beans to the United States?
    This is where I get frustrated. In the article, from Monsanto and Solae, they include the following paragraph about the benefits of soy beans as a source of omega three fatty acids.

    Another benefit of SDA soybeans is the stabilization of the ocean’s wild fish population, which is suffering from overfishing, says Sanders. “The supply of wild catch fish is going down,” he says, “and the world population is going up. We are already not getting enough omega-3s, so the gap grows even greater. What is the best way to relieve the pressure on that gap? It’s a land-based consistent, reliable source of omega-3s that takes the pressure off the fishing in our oceans.”

    While I am all for stabilizing the ocean’s wild fish population, I think that the last sentence is absolutely asinine.Taking pressure off our oceans would be great, but by relying on soy beans is ridiculous, because the cultivation of soy beans is becoming a big factor in the deforestation of the Amazonian rain forest in Brazil.See below:

    Philip Fearnside, co-author of a report in Science [21-May-04] and member of Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, explains, “Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors.”–

    So, by relieving the pressure from the ocean it will put more pressure on the rain forests. That hardly seems like a fair trade off. I feel like instead of manipulating soy, there should be more of an effort to get people to consume Omega 3s naturally. I understand that fish oil is expensive as are fish. However the following quote should not be justification for manipulating food, and potentially destroying more rain forests.

    “Consumers want to see omega-3s in affordable products they like and eat frequently, so they don’t have to change their eating habits. They also don’t want to compromise on taste.”-Director of Food Applications Rick Wilkes (from Monsanto and Solae article).

    I feel like this is the problem with western consumption, and the reason we are in such an environmental panic. There is an extraordinary amount of effort put in place to keep people as comfortable as possible.

    Here, you can find ten foods that are high in omega 3’s.

    Push people to broaden out of their comfort zone, don’t make processed food “healthier” by injecting it with omega 3’s.

    I do believe it is interesting science though, I just believe there are better ways to get your omega 3’s without modifying plants.

  4. In response to Jamie’s point, perhaps the authors should have called for a shift from current production of soybeans to these new genetically altered ones, rather than new production. Agriculture, no matter what it is, seriously affects land-cover distribution, and soy most definitely is one of the worst! The benefits, in this case, may not outweigh the costs. Missing dietary attributes can be supplemented in many other ways than this. And, where is the individual accountability here? It sounds like “people can’t get enough omega-3s, so we have to find better ways of producing them!” I’m fully with Jamie on this one: less time and money should be put to making life easier based on consumer reports, putting more accountability on the overall population. Let “Joe Plumber” decide for himself, in other words.

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