The Cult of Soy
by Anna R. Falvello Tomas
I hate to break it to you folks, but the food industry doesn't give a fig about your health. Even if they did, how much can you really trust food industry researchers and scientists? The conclusion of one scientific study often contradicts that of another. Yet food companies tend to publicize primarily those research findings that encourage consumers to purchase their products. Also, think of the fads concerning carbohydrates and fats; we never figured out whether Dr. Atkins was right about carbohydrates being the root of all evil, did we?1 But while we debated this, the food industry kept bombarding us with low carb pasta, low carb sugar and promises that eating such foods would keep us skinny, which it, by and large, didn't. So who can consumers fully trust with their health?
Having presented my skeptical thoughts, I would now like to draw your attention to one of America's (and the food industry's) favorite health foods: soy. Ah, soy, the "protein in a seed," the "vegetarian's marvel" and any crop grower's dream come true. Yes, even if a crop grower doesn't eat soy he, too, greatly benefits from this miracle plant. "Why?" you might ask. Well, first let me ask you: is soy one of today's most widespread monocultures because it is healthy, or is soy promoted as healthy because it is one of today's most widespread monocultures?
Soybean Plant, Botanical Garden,
Karlsruhe, Germany, August 2009
Credit: H. Zell, GNU Documentation License
Before I further discuss how soy has become such an intrinsic part of the American diet, I would like to make sure we are all aware of how much soy we actually eat. Notice the difference between "how much soy we eat" and "how much soy we think we eat." A 2008 British Food Journal article, "Soyfood Consumption: Effects of Perceived Product Attributes and the Food and Drug Administration Allowed Health Claims," provides some figures concerning American soy food consumption, derived from surveys submitted by 315 marketing students (Rimal, Moon and Balasubramanian, 2008). In this study, the fact that soy consumption was self-reported is relevant, as it reflects how much of it these students deliberately ate.
As part of the study, the students were asked to read all seven FDA- approved health claims for soy halfway through the survey.2 To sum up the article: forty five percent of the individuals reported consumption of soy products such as meat substitutes, tofu or soy cheese. This group included both occasional and frequent soy consumers. Curiously, the latter group admitted to be even more inclined to buy soy products after reading the aforementioned health claims. Curiously, the other fifty five percent--which, as the study also shows, included individuals of significantly lower socio-economic status--claimed to be unaffected by such information from the FDA and claimed that they would not eat soy food products due to their price, taste or because they believed that soy foods are unnatural or even unhealthy. (This last factor had about two-thirds the relevance of either price or taste in their decision not to consume soy foods.)
This study suggests there are at least two main groups of American consumers regarding soy: a group most affected by FDA-approved health claims who will be actively targeted by the soy industry and another, quite large group of people, who purposefully avoid soy. Or who at least think they do. Unfortunately for them, ingredients such as soy lecithin (emulsifier) or soy isoflavones can be found in many industrial foods. Daily soy consumption has been rising in the U.S. for the past two decades (American Soybean Association). I suspect that this increase is thanks to the fact that many of us are eating more soy than we think. According to the U.S Census Bureau, out of the nine million metric tons of soybean oil that Americans ate in 2007, eighteen percent came from industrial foods (" Domestic Utilization of Soy Oil," Soy Stats 2010). That's a million metric tons of soy stuffed into our Oreos, Pop-Tarts and Ritz crackers in the form of soy lecithin, soybean oil or partially hydrogenated soybean oil. And that's a lot.
The Magic Beanstalk
There was a time when U.S. agricultural legislation didn't allow for 77. 5 million acres (30% of the U.S crop area) to be dedicated to one single plant nor for twenty four percent of the total U.S. Principal Crops Value to proceed from one single plant.
Of course, American soy consumption hasn't always been so high. There was a time when U.S. agricultural legislation didn't allow for 77. 5 million acres (30% of the U.S crop area) to be dedicated to one single plant nor for twenty four percent of the total U.S. Principal Crops Value to proceed from one single plant.3 As a matter of fact, there was a long stretch of American history between the times of small family-owned farms and the current era of large agribusinesses. This period extends from the 1940s to 1996, the year of The Omnibus Farm Bill, a landmark in American agricultural practices. As economist Robert E. Scott explains in his article "Exported to Death: The Failure of Agricultural Deregulation," 1996 marked the year when the government offered farmers what sounded like a good deal. Farm subsidies would decrease but, as an incentive, new trade deals with the World Trade Organization and Latin America would be promoted. In addition, the government would not intervene in planting decisions. But there was a catch to this deal; large agribusinesses could now sell more produce for less money, whereas family farms could not offer such competitive prices. Without the government to pay farmers to remove excess production from the market and therefore keep controlled prices, farmers now had, in Scott's words, "the freedom to fail" and small farms were basically left facing extinction.
Of course, such a deal could only benefit the fittest for survival, agricultural multinationals. As economist Brewster Kneen puts it in The Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies (1995), food companies of this size have become a lot less about food and a lot more about speculation and economic transactions. He points out that Cargill's ambitious performance goal is, in the company's own words, "to double our size every five to seven years." This is exactly what it has done (Kneen 65). So, without any federal intervention, large farms took over the U.S. agricultural market, growing any crops they chose and as much of them as their hearts desired. All that was left to do was to find the perfect plant. Luckily, along General Mills's and Cargill's way came a beanstalk whose miracle properties had long been recognized. I am speaking of none other than soy.
History of Soy
"Setsubun no Oni" (1849)
Setsubun is a traditional Japanese ritual in spring;
people commonly throw dried soybeans
to drive out evil and demons ("oni").
Credit: Katsushika Hokusai, Hokusai Manga, 1849
For those interested in the history of this legume, there is an adorable Java applet on SoyJoy's website which,-disinterestedly-offers readers an optimistic version of the old traditions involving this bean.4 An interactive time line runs from the 28th century BC, when, according to the website, a Chinese emperor decided that soy was one of five sacred plants to grow on the surface of the earth; to the mention of "tuna of the mountains," a Japanese expression coined in the eighth century in honor of soy's high nutritional values; to the patriotic figure of Benjamin Franklin who, during his stay in London during the 1770s, apparently wrote home to Philadelphia "singing its praises"5; moving on to botanist Dr. George Washington Carver (1864-1943), the first person to extensively research the soybean in the United States.
If Carver were to visit twenty-first century America, he would probably be thrilled to see that, even a hundred years after his first findings, much attention continues to focus on soy. Carver, better known for his concern with improving the conditions of Southern farmers and for his bulletin How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It (1916), was driven by the desire to find healthy, nutritious and sustainable crops for poor farmers. It is therefore no surprise that he studied tubers such as the sweet potato and legumes like peanuts and soybeans, all known as good sources of protein. Also, soy had been part of the traditional Asian diet for a couple thousand years and, by and large, the Asian population maintained a healthy diet.6 The idea that soy is linked to positive health still prevails in the year 2010. In the eyes of a naive observer, all this evidence seems to point toward one simple conclusion: the more soy we eat, the better.
Scientifically speaking, soybeans do contain both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids7 and its protein is indeed of good quality. You see, not all protein is the same; for example, some protein sources have more of certain molecules called "digestibility suppressors," which keep our body from transforming proteins and benefiting from their nutritional value. Nonetheless, the quality of a given protein can change. As described by F. R. del Valle in an article published three decades ago in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, this can happen when beans undergo treatments such as heating, grinding or steaming. In other words, if soybeans are exposed to extremely high temperatures, as sometimes occurs during processing and fat removal, they may lose nutritional value. As del Valle explains, protein nutritional quality initially increases as a function of heat (as heat makes these proteins more readily digestible), but if the temperature is too high, essential amino acids can be inactivated or even destroyed.8
As for the advantages of growing soy versus other crops, there are many positive aspects to the cultivation of this stalk. A first reason to grow this plant would be to harvest its protein-rich seeds. A second goal would be soil improvement, as leguminous plants have the ability to fix nitrogen to the ground. Soy, in particular, can fix up to one hundred pounds of nitrogen per acre by symbiotic fixation (Falb, 453). Its soil-regenerating properties, along with the facts that it can grow in a wide range of soils and generate three harvests per year, make it an optimal crop.
So we have a nearly perfect plant, nutritionally and agriculturally speaking, and the legislation to allow its unlimited production. This truly is the magical bean that Jack kept talking about. All we need now are some 300,000,000 mouths willing to eat it.
Soy In Our Fields, In Our Heads and onto Our Plates
The first part of getting consumers to love soy is promoting health claims. This was not too hard when it came to soy. In addition to the positive properties of soy that were long known (mainly a high protein content from a vegetarian source), numerous health claims about soy started sprouting toward the very end of the 20th century. In 2009 Unilever, which owns food and beverage brands such as Knorr, Slim-Fast or AdeS (a soy-based drink), published a report titled "Soy and Health," which mentions several scientific results linking soy consumption to the prevention or improvement of such conditions as diabetes, obesity, cancer, osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms and lactose intolerance. To Unilever's credit, its paper refers to studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not just private research subsidized by the soy industry; in the conclusion, the company actually admits to inconsistencies in research findings related to soy. While reading "Soy and Health," one can infer that many so-called benefits of regular soy consumption may have, at most, a small bit of truth to them. An example cited in a previous version of the report is the link between eating soy and cholesterol reduction. A first analysis of such a relationship showed that consuming thirty to fifty grams of soy protein daily can lower cholesterol up to 13%. However, a more recent analysis conducted in 2006 found that this number was closer to 3% (Soy and Health, 2007).
Three percent, however, is more than enough for the soy industry to include this claim in their labels and advertising. The second part in promoting the message to the public is getting an authoritative body to approve half-truths such as this one, somebody consumers trust and whose word is official and reliable.
It was 1999 when the FDA, in response to a petition filed by Protein Technologies International, passed the first of seven health claims related to soy: the infamous association between soy protein and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease (PR Newswire U.S, 10/20/99). Not too surprisingly, this occurred three years after The Omnibus Farm Bill and by petition of a soy producer. Thus, the soy industry claimed its first victory; from then on, it could print this nice little assertion on any of its food labels.
The Bean Today
Thus, we have reached our current state of affairs; Americans are downing seven pounds of soy a year in forms we never would have recognized as soy. (If you do the math, that totals the one million metric tons I mentioned at the beginning of my paper.) And we aren't even sure of how this affects our health.
Fortunately, the FDA has recently announced that it is reconsidering some health claims that it approved over a decade ago. As published last year in Functional Ingredients, the official claims being reevaluated include the relationship between soy--whether soy protein or other constituents--and "dietary lipids and cancer" or "soy protein and heart disease." At the same time, the scientific community suspects there could be adverse effects when consuming supplemental doses of soy isoflavones (hormones similar to our estrogen). Let us take a closer look at these potential effects.
One example is the risk of decreased thyroid function in people with iodine deficiency. Although scientists haven't found conclusive evidence for this relationship in humans, research is being conducted on animals such as dogs. An article was published in 2009 in the American Journal of Veterinary Research by R. Cerundolo, who studied the effect of a soy-based diet on the general health and thyroid gland function in dogs. As Cerundolo explains, feeding soy to dogs on a long-term basis may influence their endocrine function. Nevertheless, "larger studies are needed to confirm this supposition" (Cerundolo, 2009, p. 360). More recently, an article published by S. Barnes in Lymphatic Research and Biology describes one of the proposed mechanisms of isoflavone activity. As Barnes explains, isoflavones might be involved in inhibiting some metabolic reactions, since isoflavones are competitive inhibitors of the reaction catalyzed by thyroid peroxidase. Nonetheless, this would only pose a danger to thyroid function when consuming iodine deficient diets, which is uncommon in the U.S. (Barnes, 2010, p. 95).
Perhaps we should not be studying soy in the traditional Chinese diet, but the effects of the modified soy found in industrial foods.
Another possible risk in consuming excess isoflavones is the increase of breast cancer in women who are already at some risk of having a tumor. In 2005 the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study on all written works concerning links between soy and breast cancer. As researchers explain in "Addressing the Soy and Breast Cancer Relationship," it has been demonstrated that soy isoflavone intake stimulates the growth of breast tumors in rodents that have already developed cancer, but determining such relationship in humans requires long-term intervention trials. Nonetheless, there have been recent attempts at proving the opposite. A study published last year in JAMA claims that "among women with breast cancer, soy food consumption was significantly associated with decreased risk of death and recurrence." But what readers should take into account while reading "Soy Food Intake and Breast Cancer Survival" is that this study was conducted on 5042 female breast cancer survivors in China and that these women were eating "soy foods commonly consumed in Shanghai, including tofu, soy milk, fresh soy beans, and other soy products ." (Shu, Zheng, Cai et al, 2009, p. 2438). Perhaps we should not be studying soy in the traditional Chinese diet, but the effects of the modified soy found in industrial foods.
This brings me to one last, but quite alarming, possible adverse effect of consuming soy in so many of our foods: the increase in food allergies. Just as a reminder, food allergies occur when our body overreacts to a certain protein that our immune system perceives as toxic. In predisposed individuals, an escalating adverse reaction can be triggered by continuous exposure to an allergen. Nutrition activist Robyn O'Bryen addresses this topic in The Unhealthy Truth. She presents the reader with some facts like the 50% increase in soy allergies which took place in the U.K. in 1998, the very year that genetically modified soy was introduced in this country (O'Bryen 66). Barnes also mentions the problem of "Hidden Soy in Our Foods" in his paper. As he explains, avoiding soy can be a very difficult task given that it "can turn up in strange, but often familiar places," such as canned tuna, chili or even Thanksgiving turkeys (Barnes, 2010, p. 91). With Americans consuming soy in forms they never would have recognized as such, it is no surprise that U.S. hospitalizations due to food allergies among children younger than eighteen increased from 2,615 in 1998-2000 to 9,537 in 2004-2006.9
If such suspicions concerning soy ever happened to be confirmed and they came to public attention, the soy industry would have a hard time selling its product.
Despite its problems, the soy industry continues to prosper in America, as soy has now been introduced in industries other than food. Some interesting examples are the development of soy as a type of biofuel and the use of soy in sealants and adhesives. In 2001, during the Farm Science Review (an annual exhibition which takes place near London, Ohio), there was a curious display of almost all existing soy-derived products called "The House that Soy Built." There now exists a number of soy-versions of many chemical products, from adhesives and lubricants to candles and plywood (Sustainable Business, 4/10/2001). Apparently, if it were up to the soy industry, we would probably be feeding exclusively off soy, driving soy-propelled automobiles, walking on streets paved with soy and washing our faces with soy. It's only a matter of time.
Whereas the use of soy in eco-friendly fuels, polymers and fabrics may be a necessary part of a greener and more sustainable future, consumers should be aware of the half-truths constituting its health claims. As of today, science cannot provide a clear answer to a question as broad as whether soy is always healthy. What it can tell us, is that "the more, the better" may not be a principle that applies to soy.
We can be sure that the food industry will do its best to glorify the properties of soy. As consumers, the best we can do is to be informed.
1 The Atkins Nutritional Approach (commonly referred to as the Atkins diet) is a low-carbohydrate diet created by the American physician and cardiologist Robert Atkins. In 1972 he published his breakthrough book, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, which reveals to readers "the high-calorie way to stay thin forever."
2 When this study was conducted, there existed seven FDA approved health claims involving soy. As mentioned in the article, these claims include "calcium and reduced risk of osteoporosis; sodium and an increased risk of hypertension; dietary saturated fat and cholesterol and an increased risk of coronary heart disease; dietary fat and an increased risk of cancer; fiber-containing grain products, fruits, and vegetables and a reduced risk of cancer; soluble fiber and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease; fruits and vegetables and a reduced risk of cancer."
3 "Principal crops" refers to "Field and Miscellaneous Crops," which include the following subcategories: grains and hay; cotton, tobacco and sugar crops; potatoes and miscellaneous crops; dry beans, peas and lentils and oilseeds. This value is calculated from data recorded in the USDA Crop Values 2009 Summary. Soybean crop value in 2009 was 31,760 million dollars and the total value of Field & Misc. Crops was 127,973 million dollars. The quotient of these two numbers is 0.2482.
4 Even the history of this plant is subject to discussion. T. Hymowitz, Emeritus Professor of Plant Genetics at the University of Illinois, and W.R. Schurtleff take on this task in " Debunking Soybean Myths and Legends in the Historical and Popular Literature." They argue that Shennong, the Chinese Emperor from the 28 th century B.C., as well as the myths that surround him "must be dispelled because they appear to be [a] fabrication." and they refer to the statement "George Washington Carver played an important role in introducing the soybean to America (United Soybean Board, 1995)" as a myth which needs some clarification (Hymowitz, 2005, p. 473-476).
5 Benjamin Franklin sent his friend and botanist John Bartram some seeds along with a letter on January 11th 1770. He refers to them as "Chinese Garavances... which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of." ( Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall, 1849.)
6 To illustrate this popular belief, compare the "Healthy life expectancy at birth" in the U.S. and Japan. This datum is defined by the World Health Organization as "The average number of years that a person can expect to live in "full health" by taking into account years lived in less than full health due to disease and/or injury." The current WHO figure for Japan is 76 years, whereas Americans are only expected to live an average of 70 healthy years.
7 Omega fatty acids, sometimes referred to as "good fats," are a family of unsaturated lipids which are best known for reducing the risk and controlling cardiovascular disease. For example, the WHO suggests to "increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil or plant sources" in order to help prevent heart-related diseases ("Cardiovascular Disease", WHO 2010).
8 Food commonly contains twenty amino acids, nine of which are considered essential for humans; i.e., they cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by the body and therefore must be taken in the diet (Encyclopaedia Britannica.)
9 Soy is one of eight food types which account for 90% of food allergies in United States. This fact and data involving hospitalizations related to allergies was retrieved from the NHCS Data Brief, No. 10, 2008, written by Branum and Lukacs.
American Soybean Association "2010 Soy Stats". 17 July 2010. <http://www.soystats.com/2010/Default-frames.htm>.
Arbindra Rimal, Wanki Moon, & Siva K. Balasubramanian. "Soyfood consumption: Effects of perceived product attributes and the food and drug administration allowed health claims." British Food Journal. Cardiff: Emerald Group Publishing, 2008. 607-621.
Atkins, Robert C. Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution. New York: Bantam, 1972.
Barnes, Stephen. "The Biochemistry, Chemistry and Physiology of the Isoflavones in Soybeans and their Food Products." Lymphatic Research and Biology . Volume 8, Number 1, 2010. 89-98.
Branum, A.M. and Lukacs, S.L. "Food allergy among U.S. children: Trends in prevalence and hospitalizations." NCHS Data Brief. No. 10. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2008.
"Cardiovascular Disease: Prevention and Control." Programmes and Projects, World Health Organization. 17 July 2010. <http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/facts/cvd/en/>.
Cerundolo, R. ""Effects of dietary soy isoflavones on health, steroidogenesis, and thyroid gland function in dogs." American Journal of Veterinary Research. 2009. Vol. 70 Iss. 3 p. 353 - 360.
Del Valle, F.R. "Nutritional Qualities of Soya Protein as Affected by Processing." Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society. Champaign: AOCS Press, 1981. 419-429.
"Domestic Utilization of Soy Oil." Soy Stats 2010. American Soybean Association. 17 July 2010.
"Healthy Life Expectancy at Birth." World Health Organization 2010. 17 July 2010.
Howell, Cindy. "The House that Soy Built." Sustainable Business. 17 July 2010.
"Human nutrition." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 July 2010. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/422896/human-nutrition>
Hymowitz, T. and Schurtleff, W.R. "Debunking Soybean Myths and Legends in the Historical and Popular Literature." Crop Science. Madison, WI. © Crop Science Society of America, 2005. Vol 45. 473-476.
Falb, Dick. "The Soybean Industry." Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society. Champaign: AOCS Press, 1977. 453-454.
Kirk, Phyllis, Ruth E Patterson, and Johanna Lampe. "Development of a Soy Food Frequency Questionnaire to Estimate Isoflavone Consumption in US Adults." Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 99. 5 (1999): 558.
Kneen, Brewster. Invisible giant: Cargill and its transnational strategies. London: East Haven, CT. Fernwood Publications; 1995
Letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Bartram, 11 January 1770. Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall (Philadelphia, 1849), p. 404-405.
Messina M, W McCaskill-Stevens, and JW Lampe. "Addressing the Soy and Breast Cancer Relationship: Review, Commentary, and Workshop Proceedings." Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 98. 18 (2006): 1275-84.
O' Brien, Robyn. The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. New York: Broadway Books, 2009.
Osborne, Sally Euclaire. "Does Soy Have a Dark Side?" Natural Health. March, 1999
Scott, Robert E. "The Failure of Agricultural Deregulation." Economic Briefing Paper. The Economic Policy Institute, Washington D.C. (1999) 1-3.
Starling, Shane. "U.S. rethinks soy health claims." Functional Ingredients. Boulder, CO: Penton Media. April 2008. 14.
"Soy and Health". Published by Unilever. Contributors: Petra Verhoef, Livia Augustin, Imke Maas, Geert van Poppel, Mathilde Terink, Gert Meijer. Editors: Guy Ramsay, Madelon van den Heuvel, Ben de Boer. Cleared by: Gert Meijer, VP Nutrition & Health, 21 September 2007.
"Soy and Health". AdeS team, Unilever 2009. 17 July 2010.
Sally Squires, "FDA to Allow Claims That Soy Products Help Cut Heart Disease Risk." Washington Post, 21 October 1999.
"The History of Soy" from SoyJoy website. 16 July 2010.
Xiao Ou Shu; Ying Zheng, Hui Cai; et al. "Soy Food Intake and Breast Cancer Survival." Journal of American Medical Association. December 9, 2009-Vol 302, No. 22. 2437-2443.