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Review Article


  • This review has been written by Dr P Tuohy in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the Ministry of Health, where the author is employed. Any views expressed in this review are personal to the author and are not necessarily the views of the Ministry, and the Ministry accepts no responsibility or liability in respect of the contents of this review.

Dr PG Tuohy, Ministry of Health, Box 5013, Wellington, New Zealand. Email:


Abstract:  Soy infant formula contains high levels of the isoflavones, genistein and daidzein, which are commonly referred to as phytoestrogens. These are non-steroidal chemicals with structural similarities to estrogen. Infants consuming soy formula have high levels of circulating isoflavones. These are an order of magnitude greater than the levels of isoflavones which have been shown to produce physiological effects in adult women consuming a high soy diet. There is conflicting evidence about the risks and benefits of soy phytoestrogens, with research presenting a contradictory picture. Some reviewers suggest that early exposure to soy may prevent cancer and heart disease. However, there is very little research on the effects of consumption of soy phytoestrogens by human neonates. Against this generally positive view there is an increasing number of recent reports that suggest that in experimental animals, phytoestrogens have adverse effects with respect to carcinogenesis, reproductive function, immune function, and thyroid disease. Despite the absence of adequate scientific research that quantifies the level of risk to infants, most would argue for a precautionary approach to be taken in situations where there are potential developmental effects from the consumption of pharmacologically active compounds in infancy and childhood.