Estrogenic foods are plant foods containing phytoestrogens, naturally occurring compounds similar to the hormone estrogen. These plant chemicals may have estrogenic or estrogen-blocking effects. Naturally occurring estrogenic foods include legumes, fruits and seeds. Studies conducted on the effects of estrogen-containing foods are conflicting concerning their health benefits and risks. Some foods contain estrogen-mimicking compounds, called xenoestrogens, due to contamination with agricultural chemicals.
Soy is one of the most well known of the estrogen-containing foods. Products made from soy include tofu, soy milk and soy protein powder. These estrogenic foods have a long history of use in Asia, and studies there have shown little to no indication of estrogen-related diseases from consuming a diet high in soy products. Flax seeds, oats and sesame seeds are also estrogenic foods. Fruits high in phytoestrogens include pomegranates, cherries and dates.
Two estrogenic drinks are coffee and beer. Hops, an ingredient in beer, contains phytoestrogens and gives beer a mildly estrogenic action. Some herbs have estrogenic effects including red clover, fennel and motherwort. These herbs and wild yam are sometimes used as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy to ease the symptoms of menopause.
Phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors in the cells, and research shows conflicting evidence on whether this causes health risks, benefits or both. Studies have shown that soy foods have no effect on sperm numbers or motility in human males. It is less clear whether plant based estrogens play a role in causing or preventing certain cancers in females. Hormone-sensitive breast cancer studies are inconclusive concerning the effects of consuming phytoestrogens.
Some studies have shown that phytoestrogens that are weak in action may bind to cell estrogen receptors without activating them, blocking estrogen or estrogen-mimicking chemicals and their effects. This provides a protective action in cases of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast cancer. A strong phytoestrogen, on the other hand, may bind and activate the cellular estrogen receptors, which might exacerbate these cancers.
Xenoestrogens, compounds that mimic estrogen and are found in plastics, pesticides and other agricultural and industrial chemicals, are also present in many foods. These chemicals have hormone-disrupting effects in humans and in wildlife. It is thought that some phytoestrogens may block the effects of the stronger xenoestrogens by binding to estrogen receptors without stimulating them. This class of compounds is found in animal products and on fruits and vegetables as pesticide residue. Non-organically produced dairy, meats and eggs may act as estrogenic foods due to the agricultural use of synthetic estrogens.