Many vegans would find life without soy (or soya, if you prefer) decidedly tough. There are many foods that are made from soybeans including tofu, soy milk, soy yoghurt (and other soy-based alternatives to dairy products), as well as vegan sausages, burgers and other vegan meat alternatives. Soybeans are also used to make soy-based protein supplements such as protein powders or bars and soy-based ingredients are added to a massive range of (especially vegan) food and drink products. As such, those people who experience allergic reactions to soy but choose to follow a plant-based diet could find things rather limiting.
Having said that, despite soy and its many derivatives being supremely popular with many vegans, it is not something that cannot be replaced in your diet. In this article, we’ll give a brief explanation of what a soy allergy is, then we’ll outline some of the main vegan foods that people with soy allergies should avoid. We’ll then give some ideas for soy-free vegan food and drink alternatives in various categories.
What Is a Soy Allergy?
A soy allergy is a type of food allergy that occurs due to someone being hypersensitive to certain compounds within soy. Like with nut allergies, this results in adverse immune responses that can manifest in symptoms, such as skins rashes, gastrointestinal pain and/or respiratory issues.
In the most severe cases, anaphylaxis can occur, which is very serious and potentially life-threatening. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include shortness of breath, swelling of the face or mouth, wheezing, an increased heart rate, confusion, headaches, pronounced skin rashes and/or a blue tinge to the skin (suggesting a lack of oxygen). If you suspect someone is having a severe reaction to soy (or anything else), you should call an ambulance immediately.
Major Food Allergens
Soy (or soya or soybeans) is one of the 14 major food allergens that must be included on food labels if present in a particular product. In case you’re interested, the UK Food Standards Agency lists the other 13 as:
- Cereals containing gluten – including wheat, rye, barley & oats
- Crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs & lobsters
- Molluscs – such as mussels & oysters
- Tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans & pistachios
- Sesame seeds
- Sulphur dioxide & sulphites (at a concentration of more than 10 parts per million)
For more information, check out the Soya Allergy Fact Sheet from Anaphylaxis Campaign.
What Vegan Foods Should Those with Soy Allergies Avoid?
There are lots of foods that should be avoided if you have a soy allergy, from soy sauce to vegan soy protein powders. Some will be more obvious than others as sometimes soy-derived ingredients (such as soybean oil) can pop up in strange places, such as biscuits, ice cream, bread or crisps. Here are some of the most common vegan foods that should be given a miss by those with soy allergies or intolerances:
Soybeans (Includes Edamame)
Whether sold as snacks after being roasted and salted or sold fresh or frozen while the beans are immature (when they are called edamame), soybeans in their most natural state are popular with many vegans and non-vegans.
Also known as beancurd, tofu is made by allowing soy milk to coagulate and pressurising the curds that result into solid (though usually quite soft) blocks. Depending on the processes employed when it is made, tofu can vary in flavour and texture and can be used in all kinds of dishes from curries to stir frys – in which it is essentially used as a vegan-friendly meat substitute, or it can even be used as a substitute for scrambled eggs.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans with the use of a tempeh starter (a fungus) to aid the fermentation process. It tends to be firmer than most tofu products and, because it retains the whole soybean, it has high quantities of protein, fibre and vitamins when compared to tofu. It can be used in similar ways to tofu though it is not as widely available in general supermarkets.
Textured Vegetable Protein (aka Textured Soy Protein)
Sometimes referred to simply as “soy meat” or “soya chunks”, textured vegetable/soy protein is a by-product of soybean oil production and is essentially defatted soy flour that forms fibrous chunks that are not too dissimilar to minced beef in texture.
Textured soy protein is used in a wide range of vegan meat alternative products, such as vegan burgers, vegan mince and vegan sausages. Note that not all textured vegetable protein (also called TVP) is made from soy as some TVP is made from wheat, oats or even cottonseed. As you might expect, all textured soy protein is made from soy, however.
Soy flour can be used in place of wheat flour in various products including bread and cakes, especially products that are gluten free. As it is high in protein, it is sometimes also added to products that are marketed as high in protein, such as vegan protein bars.
Soybean oil is not as common in the UK as it is in the US (where it is one of the most popular vegetable oils where it is often sold simply as “vegetable oil”. In the UK, most oil that is sold as “vegetable oil” is actually sunflower oil or a mix of various products, but it pays to check the label, just in case.
Soy Milk (Including Other Soy “Dairy” Products)
One of the most popular vegan milk alternatives around, soy milk was also one of the first to gain space on supermarket shelves in the UK, not least because of the Alpro brand (owned by Danone). Many other soy-based dairy alternatives exist, including yoghurt, cream and ice cream.
A seasoning/soup base that is popular in Japan and elsewhere, miso is made from fermented soybeans and has an earthy, umami flavour.
Soy sauce is also made from fermented soybeans and is used as a condiment in many Asian cuisines.
Because it is high in protein, soy is an ingredient in various infant formulas (aka powdered baby milk) and especially those aimed at children who have a dairy allergy or intolerance.
Where to Buy Soy-Free Vegan Food
When you are shopping in a supermarket, it is easier to avoid some things than others. There are dedicated sections in most big supermarkets for plant-based food these days (at long last!) and in the free-from aisles, most products are clearly labelled as being dairy free or free from eggs and so on. But it is rare for products to be specifically labelled as “soy free”. As such, for those with a soy allergy, shopping can be quite a painstaking process of checking the ingredients of products (until they have built up a good knowledge of which products are fine for them at least).
The same is true to an extent when shopping for groceries online. Most supermarkets will allow you to filter products so it only shows those that are vegan or dairy free or even gluten free. But not many allow you to select soy-free products as a filter. Thankfully, our favourite vegan retailer, TheVeganKind Supermarket, does have a “soya free” filter, which makes things a whole lot easier when stocking up on your favourite plant-based burgers or vegan sweets.
Best Soy-Free Vegan Alternatives
These days, it’s not too much of a problem to find good Vegan Substitutions for most foods (even if the jury is still well and truly out on the quality of vegan cheese and vegan bacon). But when it comes to figuring out which of the various vegan alternatives are also free of soy-based ingredients, things can be a little trickier. It’s only when you start to delve into the ingredients that it becomes apparent just how widespread the use of soy is in vegan products.
Luckily, though, there are plenty of soy-free vegan options covering all kinds of food and drink products. Here we’ll run through what we think are the best soy-free options in various vegan food and drink categories.
Soy-Free Vegan Meat Substitutes
Soy (often in the form of textured soy protein) has long been the go-to, high-protein ingredient in vegan meat products. It is thus no surprise that plenty of well-known vegan meat products are off the menu for those with soy allergies. Most vegan mince products contain soy, as do many burgers (such as Linda McCartney Vegetarian ¼lb Burgers, Meatless Farm Co Plant Based Burgers, and Vivera Plant Quarter Pounders) and sausages (like the Richmond Meat Free Sausages and Linda McCartney sausages). It’s always a good idea to check the labels in the meat-free section and where present soy (or soya) will be written in bold type and/or capitals.
There are a few alternatives to soy when it comes to fake meat, however. For instance, vegan meat products from Beyond Meat are specifically free of soy (they use pea protein and fava bean protein among their ingredients). There is also a growing number of vegan products made by Quorn, whose mycoprotein is free of soy and perfectly vegan (they just add egg- or milk-based ingredients to some of their other products to spoil them from a vegan perspective). Here are some specific vegan meat products that do not contain soy or soy-based ingredients.
|Type of Vegan Meat||Brand/Product|
|Vegan Burgers||Beyond Meat Beyond Burgers; MacSween Ultimate Veggie Burger; Love Seitan Seitan Burgers; Quorn Ultimate Burgers; Quorn Hot & Spicy Burgers|
|Vegan Sausages||Meatless Farm Co Plant-Based Sausages; Quorn Brillant Bangers – Vegan Sausages; Beyond Meat Beyond Sausages|
|Vegan Chicken||VFC Vegan Fried Chick*n; Squeaky Bean Ready To Eat Chicken Style Pieces (no soya in the ingredients though the label says “may contain soya”); Quorn Vegan Pieces; Quorn Vegan Fillets; Pro Fusion Organic Protein Chunks Pea & Fava; Quorn Vegan Nuggets; Quorn Roarsomes – Vegan Dinosaurs|
|Vegan Steaks||Wheaty Organic Virginia Steak; Seitans Lot Vegan Style Steak|
|Vegan Mince||Beyond Meat Plat-Based Mince; Tesco Plant Chef Meat-Free Mince; Jack & Bry Jackfruit Mince|
|Vegan Bacon||Finnebrogue Naked Without The Oink! Unsmoked “Bacon” Rashers; Seitans Lot Vegan Style Bacon Rashers|
Soy-Free Vegan Dairy Substitutes
When it comes to vegan dairy alternatives, it’s usually not too difficult to avoid soy-based products. This is partly because an increasing number of milks and related foods are more than happy to make a point that they do not include soy. Also, certain products (such as most vegan cheese products) tend to be made from other ingredients anyway, such as coconut oil or cashews nuts.
Here are some common soy-free dairy alternatives available in the UK.
|Type of Vegan Dairy Alternative||Brand/Product/Type|
|Vegan Milk||Various brands of each of the following: almond milk; hazelnut milk; oat milk; rice milk; pea milk; hemp milk; coconut milk; cashew milk|
|Vegan Cheese||Violife Vegan Cheese; Applewood Vegan Cheese; Oatly Creamy Oat Spread; Green Vie Vegan Halloumi; Bute Island Sheese (some varieties); Tyne Chease|
|Vegan Yoghurt||The Coconut Collaborative; Oatly Oatgurt; Co Yo Organic Dairy Free Yoghurt; Nush Almond Milk Dairy Free Yoghurt|
|Vegan Ice Cream||Oatly Ice Cream; Roar Plant-Based Ice Cream; Booja-Booja Vegan Ice Cream|
|Vegan Butter/Margarine||Mergulo Cashew Nut Butter; Naturli Vegan Butter Block; Vitalite Dairy Free Spread; Flora Plant Butter|
This is far from an exhaustive list but we’ve mentioned some of the products that are most likely to pop up in your local supermarket or be easily available online.
Other Vegan Substitutes
Here are a couple of other substitutes for products that sometimes contain soy:
Vegan Cooking Oils
Most vegan-friendly cooking oils in the UK are free of soybean oil, though it can sometimes be added as a blend with other oils in the rather vaguely titled “vegetable oil”. There are plenty of other options and, if health is a concern for you, choosing the best and healthiest vegan cooking oils will depend on what you are using the oil for (most notably whether you are cooking at high or relatively low temperatures or if you are using it raw, for instance, to drizzle on a salad).
Vegan Protein Products for People with Soy Allergies
While there are lots of vegan protein powders and vegan protein bars that contain soy protein isolate or concentrate, there are plenty of options that don’t. From pea protein to rice protein to pumpkin seed protein, there are numerous protein products for vegans that don’t include soy and will give you excellent amounts of the nine essential amino acids (sometimes by blending two or more different protein products).
Dairy-Free Infant Formula for Babies with Soy Allergies
If your baby has a milk allergy or intolerance you should consult with your doctor and they will advise on non-dairy alternatives. If your child also has some allergic reaction to soy-based infant formula, it is important to go back to your doctor who will again advise of the options.
Getting the nutrition right for a growing baby is a tricky thing (although nature has done pretty well in the development of breast milk) and getting the most up-to-date professional medical advice is essential, especially when it comes to possible allergic reactions to some formulas.
Avoiding Soy When Eating Out
As with nut allergies or indeed any food allergies, it always pays to err on the side of caution, especially if there is a chance you could suffer a severe reaction to exposure to the allergen in question. When it comes to allergens, the legislation in the UK states that “food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe” and that it could be deemed unsafe based on the information provided to the consumer “concerning the avoidance of specific adverse health effects from a particular food or category of foods”. There is lots of guidance available to restaurants and other food businesses (for instance from the Food Standards Agency), but it is impossible to know how well any individual food business adheres to the advice.
As such, it could be a matter of communicating with restaurant staff members or the manager to ascertain whether they are even aware of soy allergies and whether they’ve put procedures in place to mitigate such things in their establishment. If they don’t seem to know what you’re talking about, alarm bells should ring. It can be a very difficult task to completely eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination in a kitchen environment, but you can at least make a judgement as to whether staff take such things seriously.
Should Everyone Stop Eating Soy on Environmental Grounds?
There is a growing concern among vegans and others that eating soy could be having a detrimental impact on the environment. Those people who came to veganism for environmental reasons or indeed anyone who has more than a passing interest in environmental issues will no doubt have seen reports of the cultivation of soy resulting in deforestation and habitat destruction. But it is important to put the situation in context.
The vast majority of soy that is produced is fed to non-human animals, animals that are destined to end up as burgers and other meat products (after they’ve farted and burped a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere). It is, of course, preferable to eat soy instead of meat products, that have a far greater environmental impact. And, it is always better to purchase products that only use responsible soy, but this is sometimes easier said than done.
There is certainly an argument to suggest that choosing other vegan foods that are more sustainable than soy could be a good move. For instance, a 2019 study undertaken by researchers at the University of Manchester found that cabbage, Brussels sprouts, courgettes and cauliflowers were very good from an environmental perspective (whereas asparagus, aubergines, beans and tomatoes were relatively poor). Okay, a plate of sprouts isn’t going to satisfy in the same way a bowl of vegan chilli made with soy mince might, but you get the picture. If you do want to cut down or eliminate your consumption of soy, using some of the suggestions above should help.
Veganism Without Soy – Conclusions
There is an endless list of vegan foods that don’t contain any soy or soy-derived products and we’ve just given a snapshot of some of the most common. Although soy allergies are not as widespread as tree nut or, especially, peanut allergies, they can still be extremely serious and immediate medical attention will be required if someone suffers anaphylaxis as a result of exposure to soy.
Even though soy is one of the best vegan sources of protein, someone who has a soy allergy can still thrive on a plant-based diet. This is partly because of the rise of products made from pea protein and other protein sources, but mainly because there is so much natural goodness in vegetables and fruit in their unprocessed states that, with a little imagination, you can create perfectly nutritious, high protein – and very tasty – plant-based meals.