Soy May Boost Cognitive Abilities in Children

In a new study, children who consumed more isoflavones from soy foods exhibited better thinking abilities and attention.

Isoflavones are naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds primarily found in legumes, particularly soybeans and soy products.

Although previous research has suggested that soy isoflavones can enhance memory in adults, the benefits haven’t been studied well in children.

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The new study presented at NUTRITION 2024, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, indicates that children who consume more isoflavones may have better cognitive abilities.

Researchers examined data from an earlier study that included 128 children ages 7 to 13. Using information from 7-day diet records, they calculated each child’s average dietary intake, including the amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins, and isoflavones consumed.

The researchers then used various tests to assess the children’s general intellectual ability and attentional abilities.

Children who consumed more soy foods exhibited faster responses during the attentional tasks and showed faster processing speed. However, the intake of soy isoflavone did not appear to affect general intellectual ability.

The overall intake of isoflavone-containing soy foods in the study was low, as children consumed an average of 1.33 mg of isoflavones per day.

“Soy consumption for individual participants ranged from 0 to 35 mg/day. To put this into perspective, an 8 fl. oz serving of soy milk provides about 28 mg of isoflavones, a serving of tofu provides about 35 mg and half a cup of steamed edamame provides about 18 mg of isoflavones,” said Ajla Bristina, a neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The benefits and risks of soy products

The study does not prove that isoflavones from soy foods directly improve cognitive abilities in children; it just shows an association.

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Many health myths surround soy products. Isoflavones are classified as phytoestrogens that contain inherent estrogenic activity or are converted to estrogenic compounds in the gut. This raises fears that high consumption of soy foods can disrupt reproductive hormones.

However, the findings on harmful soy effects are primarily based on animal studies that don’t reflect human biology.

A 2021 review of 417 reports concluded that isoflavone intake does not adversely affect thyroid function. Moreover, adverse effects are also not seen on breast or endometrial tissue or estrogen levels in women. Neither soy isoflavone negatively impacts testosterone or estrogen levels or sperm or semen parameters in men.

The researchers noted that although adverse effects of isoflavone intake were not identified in children, limited research has been conducted thus far.

Studies have shown some health benefits of soy products, including the following:

  • Replacing other proteins with soy protein may lead to small decreases in bad cholesterol.
  • Soy isoflavone supplements or soy protein can help slightly reduce the frequency and severity of menopausal hot flashes.
  • Soy protein may slightly decrease blood pressure in people with hypertension.
  • Among Asian women, higher intakes of soy during childhood and adolescence are associated with a lower risk of breast cancer later in life.

Bristina, the author of the new study, says that snacks like roasted edamame, soy nuts, or soy milk are good ways to incorporate more soy into the diet. Meanwhile, tofu, tempeh, or soy-based nuggets are also good options for meals.

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