Soy is known to produce estrogenic isoflavones. Here, we briefly review the evidence for binding of isoflavones to the estrogen receptor, in vivo estrogenicity and developmental toxicity, and estrogen developmental carcinogenesis in rats. Genistein, the major soy isoflavone, also has a frank estrogenic effect in women. We then focus on evidence from animal and human studies suggesting a link between soy consumption and goiter, an activity independent of estrogenicity. Iodine deficiency greatly increases soy antithyroid effects, whereas iodine supplementation is protective. Thus, soy effects on the thyroid involve the critical relationship between iodine status and thyroid function. In rats consuming genistein-fortified diets, genistein was measured in the thyroid at levels that produced dose-dependent and significant inactivation of rat and human thyroid peroxidase (TPO) in vitro. Furthermore, rat TPO activity was dose-dependently reduced by up to 80%. Although these effects are clear and reproducible, other measures of thyroid function in vivo (serum levels of triiodothyronine, thyroxine, and thyroid-stimulating hormone; thyroid weight; and thyroid histopathology) were all normal. Additional factors appear necessary for soy to cause overt thyroid toxicity. These clearly include iodine deficiency but may also include additional soy components, other defects of hormone synthesis, or additional goitrogenic dietary factors. Although safety testing of natural products, including soy products, is not required, the possibility that widely consumed soy products may cause harm in the human population via either or both estrogenic and goitrogenic activities is of concern. Rigorous, high-quality experimental and human research into soy toxicity is the best way to address these concerns. Similar studies in wildlife populations are also appropriate.
Doerge DR, Sheehan DM. Goitrogenic and estrogenic activity of soy isoflavones. Environ Health Perspect 2002 June Division of Biochemical Toxicology, National Center for Toxicological Research, Jefferson, Arkansas, USA.