Soybeans might be the unsung hero of the vegetarian world, but when it comes to allergies, this tiny little pod ranks pretty high on the list of the most common culprits.
Soybean allergies are more common than you might think, affecting up to 0.4% of the population worldwide.1
With symptoms varying and covering everything from mild discomfort to life-threatening anaphylaxis, it’s important to stay up to date on the facts if you work in foodservice.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
Are Soybeans a Major Food Allergen?
The FDA lists soybeans as a major food allergen along with eight other allergens, including milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, sesame, and wheat.2 The reaction caused by these allergens could range from mild skin rash to a life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Symptoms of a soybean allergy, in particular, can appear anywhere from minutes to several hours after consumption or exposure.
While they can vary from person to person, the most common symptoms include:
In the most severe cases, it could also lead to anaphylaxis, which is an emergency medical condition that has the potential to result in death if not treated promptly.
So why, exactly, are soybeans so problematic for some people? The answer lies in the proteins present in soy.
Certain proteins in soy can bind to specific IgE antibodies produced by the person's immune system. This binding triggers the person's immune defense, leading to a reaction that can be mild or severe. The amount of protein required to trigger an allergic reaction can vary from person to person, making it difficult to predict which individuals are allergic.
While soy allergy is less common than milk allergy, it is no less serious. In fact, a study published by the National Institute of Health reports that soy allergy is the third most common food allergy in children, following milk and egg allergies.3
A soybean allergy is often lumped together with a milk allergy because of the similarities in proteins and the co-occurrence in foods like infant formula, a common first food for babies.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that a soy allergy differs from milk allergies and having a lactose intolerance, and the conditions should not be confused.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that soybean allergies are very rare in adults. Most children outgrow their allergies by adulthood, which is why the overall prevalence (that 0.4% we cited earlier) is so low compared to other allergens.
Soybean Allergy: Guidance for Foodservice Professionals
Accommodating customers with soy allergies is all about communication, attention to detail, and a willingness to be flexible. Here are some tips to help keep everyone safe:
1. Read Labels
First and foremost, if you want to accommodate your customers with a soy allergy, you’ve got to get good at reading labels. Consider it your second job!
Because soy is a major food allergen in the United States, it must be listed on labels. However, soy can go by a wide variety of names besides the common “soy.”
Some common nicknames for soy include expelled, extruded, and cold-pressed soy. Some products are made from soy (many of which people are unaware of), including:
Soy ice cream
Soy protein (often found in supplements and weight loss products)
Low-fat peanut butter
Textured vegetable protein.
Soy can also appear in unexpected places like cereals, crackers, and canned broths. And be sure to watch for vegetable gum, vegetable starch, and vegetable broth–these can all contain soy.
Soy is a common ingredient in Asian cuisine, mainly Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. Even if items seem soy-free, there’s a high risk of cross-contamination with these cuisines.
2. Ask About Soy Lecithin and Highly-Refined Soybean Oil
One important thing to note is that highly refined soy oil is not required to be labeled as an allergen.
However, what’s especially interesting is that most people with soy allergy can safely consume highly refined soy oil and soy lecithin, so that shouldn’t matter too much.4
With that said, every situation is unique, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
If you're unsure, double-check with your customer and encourage them to consult their doctor to determine whether they need to avoid soy oil or lecithin when dining out.
3. Double-Check Your Vegan and Vegetarian Options
Many vegan and vegetarian options rely on soy as a substitute for meat or dairy. While these dishes may seem safe for soybean allergy sufferers, they could still contain soy in some form to achieve a similar texture.
Again, this is why it’s so important to communicate and check with your customers and ensure they're aware of any possible soy in their meals.
4. Be Wary of Peanuts
Sadly, about 88% of soy-allergic people will have a peanut allergy or sensitivity. That's because peanuts are also legumes, just like beans, peas, and lentils. Interestingly, it is rare for peanut-allergic individuals to be allergic to soy–the primary allergen really does matter here.
Because of this, you’ll want to be extra careful about labeling and searching for peanuts as well as soybeans in the ingredients you use in your kitchen.
5. Do a Bathroom Overhaul
Here's a curveball that many people aren't aware of–many personal care products like soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers have soy in them.
Besides keeping soybean ingredients out of the kitchen, check your bathrooms for any personal care items that pose a risk to people with soy allergies.5 Replace soaps, hand creams, and moisturizers with safer alternatives that do not contain soy or soy products.
6. Check Your Supply Room
Soy can also be found in non-food items like cleaning supplies.6 Soy-based ink is also a popular choice for printing on paper products like napkins and menus.
You should check all products used in your establishment to ensure they do not contain soy–the list is long and includes cleaning supplies, tableware, and even linens.
7. Have an Honest Conversation with the Customer
As we’ve mentioned multiple times already, it’s so important to have honest conversations with your customers. Ask if they have any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Remember, a soybean allergy isn’t something to be taken lightly, as it can be life-threatening.
If you have a customer with a soybean allergy, work with them to find dishes that will meet their needs. Offer them substitutions or alternative options that don't contain soy. Be accommodating and sensitive to their needs.
8. Be Aware of the Signs of a Reaction
One of the good things about soybean allergy is that reactions tend to be milder than other food allergies. But you still shouldn’t let your guard down.
Make sure you and the rest of your team are educated about the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Again, the most common symptoms can include hives, itching in the mouth or throat, lips, tongue, or face swelling, vomiting, wheezing, or shortness of breath.
If you notice any of these symptoms, take them seriously. Have a plan in case of an emergency, such as having an EpiPen on hand and providing your staff guidance for when to call paramedics to your establishment.
9. Take Steps to Avoid Cross Contamination
Again–even small amounts of soy can trigger an allergic reaction, so eliminating any risk of cross-contamination is vital.
Start by training your staff to properly handle and prepare food for customers with soybean allergies. This training can include using separate cutting boards, knives, utensils, and cookware specifically designated for allergen-free cooking.
10. Offer Customers Substitution Options
When someone with a soybean allergy visits your restaurant or catering service, try to offer substitution options whenever possible.
For example, if you usually use soy sauce in a recipe, see if you can substitute another sauce for your customer.
It's also a good idea to have a backup plan in place. Keep a few bottles of soy-free salad dressing on hand, just in case.
And if there aren’t any substitutions available? Don’t be afraid to say so. It’s better to communicate these potential issues ahead of time to your customers than to risk them getting sick.
11. Put Up Signage in Your Kitchen
Last but not least, take the time to visibly indicate that you are taking soybean allergies seriously in your kitchen. You can do this by putting up signage that reminds your staff to:
Wash their hands thoroughly to prevent cross-contamination.
Use fresh utensils and cookware when preparing allergen-free meals.
Avoid using shared equipment (such as fryers) to cook allergen-free meals.
It’s also not a bad idea to put up signage reminding your staff to check labels for soy and common culprits, like soybean oil or edamame, as an example. These visual reminders will help everyone keep the risk of allergens at the front of their minds.
As a bonus, it can also show that you take food allergies seriously and care about your customers.
We’ve covered everything you need to know about soybean allergies and what you can do in foodservice to keep your customers safe. Whether you work in an elementary school cafeteria or a bustling restaurant, understanding these details is key to keeping everyone well-fed, happy, and reaction-free.
If you’re still curious, don’t be afraid to do more research. Trust20 offers everything you need to ensure food allergen awareness and safety in the kitchen.
Taking the extra step to educate yourself and the rest of your team is well worth it to prevent allergic reactions in your space!
ACS Food Science & Technology: Soybean (Glycine max) Allergens─A Review on an Outstanding Plant Food with Allergenic Potential
FDA: Food Allergies
National Institute of Health: Milk and Soy Allergy
American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology: Soy Allergy | Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Food Allergy Research and Education: Soy
Very Well Health: Surprising Non-Food Soybean Products