Soy is a basic food ingredient of traditional Asian cuisine used for thousands of years. In Western countries, soybeans have been introduced about a hundred years ago and recently they are mainly used for surrogate foods production. Soy and soy foods are common nutritional solutions for vegetarians, due to their high protein content and versatility in the production of meat analogues and milk substitutes. However, there are some doubts about the potential effects on health, such as the effectiveness on cardiovascular risk reduction or, conversely, on the possible disruption of thyroid function and sexual hormones. The soy components that have stimulated the most research interest are isoflavones, which are polyphenols with estrogenic properties highly contained in soybeans. In this review, we discuss the characteristics of soy and soy foods, focusing on their nutrient content, including phytoestrogens and other bioactive substances that are noteworthy for vegetarians, the largest soy consumers in the Western countries. The safety of use will also be discussed, given the growing trend in adoption of vegetarian styles and the new soy-based foods availability.
Keywords: cancer; endocrine disruptor; isoflavones; meat analogues; phytoestrogens; protein quality; selective oestrogen receptor modulator; soy foods; thyroid health; vegetarian diets.