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Oestrogenic chemicals produced naturally by plants are called phytoestrogens (Hopert et al., 1998). They are present in low levels in many plants, and some are anti-oestrogens (IEH, 1995). It is believed that consumption of plants with anti-oestrogenic phytoestrogens may reduce the risk of breast cancer. The UK Institute for Environment and Health report concludes:

"Taking into account the lifelong exposure to phytoestrogens, it is probable that the potential adverse properties are more than counterbalanced by the anti-oestrogenic and other benefits of eating a high plant food diet".

The chemical industry is very keen to emphasise the existence of phytoestrogens, sometimes even claiming that their anti-oestrogenic effect will, by some remarkable coincidence of concentration and activity, cancel out any oestrogenic effects of their chemicals. It is important to remember that humanity, and the organisms we evolved from, have been exposed to phytoestrogens for tens of millions of years, and so are likely to have evolved methods of degrading and detoxifying them in most circumstances. This is not true of the new man-made hormone disrupters.

Concerns about infant formulae

There are, however, concerns about the use of soya-based infant foods, as these are not a natural part of our diet, and could be having a negative effect. The UK Department of Health advice is:

1) babies being fed soya-based formulae on the advice of a doctor, health visitor or other health care professional should continue to be given it;

2) parents who have not been advised but have chosen to give their baby soya- based formulae should continue to feed their baby on the formulae but seek advice from their doctor, health visitor or other health care professional;

3) breast feeding is the best way of feeding infants and can help prevent allergies. Infant formulae provide an alternative source of nutrition and formulae based on cow's milk are preferable for most bottle-fed babies (DOH, 1996).

This advice was re-iterated in September 1998, following a UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food survey of plant oestrogens in soya-based infant formula (MAFF, 1998).

This page was last updated in October 1999
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DOH, 1996. Advice on soya-based infant formula, UK Department of Health press release, 18th July 1996.

Hopert, A.-C., Beyer, A., Frank, K., Strunck, E., Wünsche, W. and Vollmer, G. 1998. Characterization of estrogenicity of phytoestrogens in an endometrial-derived experimental model. Environ. Health Persp. 106: 581-586.

IEH 1995. Environmental oestrogens: Consequences to human health and wildlife. Institute for Environment and Health, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.

MAFF, 1998. Plant Oestrogens in Soya-Based Infant Formulae. Food Surveillance Information Sheet No 167, November 1998. UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

URL: http://website.lineone.net/~mwarhurst/phytoest.html