Few foods have enjoyed a more angelic reputation than the soybean.
While dietary staples, like meat and dairy, are increasingly demonized as the ogres of good nutrition, soy is clawing its way to the top wearing the banner of “the perfect food.”
But the black clouds are collecting over the world’s vast soy fields.
Among chemists and nutritionists, at least, soy has been in a perpetual freefall from grace for the past decade.
Soy consumption is being linked to innumerable ailments and cancers, as well as nutritional deficiencies because it is a blocker of various essential vitamins and minerals.
It is almost always sold in a form that requires heavy chemical processing involving carcinogens.
Most of what is sold is chock full of pesticides.
Oh, and the production of soy is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon.
But the dirt on soy has been slow to emerge.
For one, soy’s popularity in the West can be measured less in terms of public consumption of tofu, soy milk, and textured vegetable protein and more in terms of its popularity among the factory food industry.
As much as 60 per cent of food products contain soy.
The second reason soy remains, inaccurately, a public saint is the well-funded marketing schemes of the soy manufacturing giants, including Dupont, which have succeeded in turning soy into the solution to heart disease and prostate cancer.
The industry is even pushing its way into school cafeterias to fight obesity.
In January, 2000, The Furrow, a magazine published in 12 languages by the John Deere tractor company, ran a piece about soy that exemplifies the heavenly hype.
“Just imagine you could grow the perfect food … It would be a healthful food, with no saturated fat … This ideal food would help prevent, and perhaps reverse, some of the world’s most dreaded diseases … Its cultivation would build up, not deplete, the land … this miracle food already exists …. It’s called soy.”
The United States produces more than 30 million hectares of soybeans.
It is America’s third-largest crop and the US is the world’s top producer, supplying more than 50 per cent of the world’s soybean demand.
US soybean companies are going further south to feed the demand, razing rainforests and displacing locals in Brazil, even enlisting slave labour, according to some accounts, and turning that country into the world’s second largest soybean producer.
Most soybeans are made into animal feed and are manufactured into soy oil for use as vegetable oil, margarine and shortening.
Soy milk is a very popular product.
But most soy that we buy is hidden.
It is disguised as everything from cheese, milk, burgers and hot dogs, to ice cream, yogurt, vegetable oil, baby formula and flour. These products are marketed as low-fat, dairy-free, or high-protein — and the soy content is rarely advertised.
Soy derivatives, such as soy flour, textured vegetable protein, partially hydrogenated soy bean oil and soy protein isolate are everywhere.
Grab a few things from your fridge and cupboard and look on the back — soy, soy, soy.
Soy has many bogeymen.
One of them is phytic acid, or phytates, an “anti-nutrient” that blocks important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc from being absorbed in the body.
Milk has been given credit for why second-generation Japanese in the West grow taller than their native ancestors, but some scientists suggest the reduced soy content of the Japanese-American’s diet is the true explanation.
People without enough meat and fish to counteract the effects of a high phytate diet from soy frequently suffer rickets, stunting and other growth problems.
Soybeans also contain potent enzyme inhibitors.
These block the uptake of enzymes that the body needs for protein digestion, sometimes leading to serious gastric distress or chronic deficiencies in the uptake of amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Beyond these, soybeans also contain hemagglutinin, a clot-promoting substance that causes red blood cells to clump together and can impede cardiac health.
Fermenting soybeans can solve some of these problems, but cooking will not.
The process of making tofu out of soy makes it safer, but not 100 per cent.
Only fermented miso or tempeh is free of the “anti-nutrients” which make it digestible by humans.
However, the problem here is that miso and tempeh are celebrated for their high levels of vitamin B-12, which are actually inactive in these forms, and therefore useless.
Another twist in this long story of soy is that the processes which render the soybean edible also make it inedible.
Fermenting soybeans eliminates most of the “anti-nutrients” but it also makes them difficult to digest.
And the alkaline solution used to ferment produces a carcinogen and renders the protein useless.
To the soybean’s credit, it does contain large amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, but these too can be compromised by the heat used to extract its oil. Which brings up yet another problem…
Hexane, a common constituent of gasoline and glues used for shoes, leather products and roofing, or as a cleansing agent for shoe, furniture and textile manufacturing, is used to extract the oil.
With the exception of full-fat soy flour, all soybean products will contain trace amounts of hexane.
Adding insult to injury, the majority of soy is genetically modified and has one of the highest percentages of contamination by pesticides of any of other food.
And numerous artificial flavourings, particularly MSG, are added to soy products to mask their strong “beany” taste and to impart the flavour of meat.
If all of this is true, soy might well be the worst food crop ever produced.
But this story is far from over.
It’s obvious that soy’s career as “the perfect food” has barely begun.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.