Background: High intake of soy foods has been proposed to contribute to the low breast cancer risk in Asian countries. However, results of epidemiologic studies of this association are highly variable, and experimental data suggest that soy constituents can be estrogenic and potentially risk enhancing. Thus, rigorous evaluation of available epidemiologic data is necessary before appropriate recommendations can be made, especially for women at high risk of breast cancer or those who have survived the disease.
Methods: We performed a meta-analysis of 18 epidemiologic studies (12 case-control and six cohort or nested case-control) published from 1978 through 2004 that examined soy exposure and breast cancer risk. Pooled relative risk estimates were based on either the original soy exposure measure defined in each study or on an estimate of daily soy protein intake.
Results: Risk estimates, levels and measures of soy exposure, and control for confounding factors varied considerably across studies. In a pooled analysis, among all women, high soy intake was modestly associated with reduced breast cancer risk (odds ratio [OR] = 0.86, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.75 to 0.99); the association was not statistically significant among women in Asian countries (OR = 0.89, 95% CI = 0.71 to 1.12). Among the 10 studies that stratified by menopausal status the inverse association between soy exposure and breast cancer risk was somewhat stronger in premenopausal women (OR = 0.70, 95% CI = 0.58 to 0.85) than in postmenopausal women (OR = 0.77, 95% CI = 0.60 to 0.98); however, eight studies did not provide menopause-specific results, six of which did not support an association. When exposure was analyzed by soy protein intake in grams per day, a statistically significant association with breast cancer risk was seen only among premenopausal women (OR = 0.94, 95% CI = 0.92 to 0.97).
Conclusions: Soy intake may be associated with a small reduction in breast cancer risk. However, this result should be interpreted with caution due to potential exposure misclassification, confounding, and lack of a dose response. Given these caveats and results of some experimental studies that suggest adverse effects from soy constituents, recommendations for high-dose isoflavone supplementation to prevent breast cancer or prevent its recurrence are premature.