Soy: Is it Safe for Me? A Cautionary Tale for People and Planet

I came across an article this week, written by Barry Boyd, MD, a board certified oncologist and hematologist, that does an excellent job of summing up, once and for all, the myths and facts around soy as it relates to breast cancer.  Fortunately, I think we’ve finally gotten to a point in science that we can confidently stand on one side of the fence when it comes to soy and this issue.  If you’re at all confused about soy and breast cancer, I recommend you give his article a read.

But, before you go and grill up your next soy veggie burger, you should know that there’s another cautionary tale to be told about this plump little legume.  It turns out much of the soy we eat today is not plump or even all that soy-like.  Thanks (or not) to advances in food technology, much of the soy we eat today is either genetically modified, washed and extracted with a neurotoxic petro-chemical, or both.  So, with Dr. Boyd’s talents for history telling as inspiration, allow me to tell you a bit of a story…

Soy is actually quite a deserved celebrity when it comes to beans.  It’s an excellent source of soluble and insoluble fiber, contains heart healthy unsaturated fats, and is a rare vegetarian source of complete protein (a protein is considered complete when it matches the composition of the protein found in an egg).  If you’re a vegetarian, finding complete sources of protein is a big deal.  It’s also planet friendly as it’s grown domestically and has a much smaller carbon footprint than eating an equivalent amount of protein from an animal source (thus the veggie burger reference).  Maybe it’s because of all these positive attributes that soy has been such a point of focus for food scientists.  The fact that it’s a subsidized crop that US farmers are heavily incentivized to grow in mass quantities doesn’t hurt either.

Although all the aspects of a soybean are compelling, it’s really the protein that’s become a focus for the packaged food industry.  High protein diets are a bit of a nutrition fad if you haven’t noticed.   Although most of us have stepped back in recent years from the extremes of the Atkins Diet, more still seems to be better and what better ingredient to bump up protein levels in food than inexpensive and abundant soybeans?

So then, it should be no surprise that soy can be found in almost every packaged foods category.  From crackers to energy bars, ice cream to frozen waffles, soy boosts the protein levels of an incredible number of foods and can be found in more than 60% of processed foods in the marketplace today.

But here’s the thing: just as protein is an established fad, fat is an equally established phobia.  Mother Nature rarely creates food without a balanced mix of nutrients – some fat, some protein, some fiber and likely some antioxidants thrown in for good measure.  Ten grams of protein and zero grams of fat?  Nope, not found in nature and certainly not in a soybean.  So, to meet our demands for protein without all the scary fat, scientists developed a method to separate the two.  Hexane is a petro-chemical that is drilled out from deep down in the earth.  When washed over soybeans it causes the fat to separate from the protein.  It’s incredibly efficient at what it does, much more so than mechanically pressing out the oil (the way expeller-pressed oils are extracted).  What you get at the end of the hexane washing process are two new ingredients, isolated soy protein and soybean oil.

Hexane is a pretty scary chemical.   The Environmental Working Group classifies it as a neurotoxin and a possible reproductive and developmental toxin.  As a result of these risks, ingredient processors take care to remove all but a very small amount of the hexane residue from the final product (likely somewhere between five and 30 parts per million).  However, for many people exposure to hexane is a black and white issue.  Once they know about it, they don’t want to be exposed to it and whether it’s present at parts per thousand levels or parts per million levels, it’s too much.  Because hexane is a processing aid, its use is not required to be disclosed on food labels.  (NOTE: Expeller-pressed versions of soy protein are beginning to emerge in the marketplace, but options are still very limited and these versions contain higher fat levels.)

And then there’s the GMO issue93% of all soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified.  GM soy enables a form of farming called mono-cropping, growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year.  This approach has an economic benefit in that it simplifies farming operations and decreases labor costs.  However, mono-cropping depletes nutrients from the soil and decreases crop-yields over time creating a need for increased synthetic fertilizer use.  Although there may be a short-term economic gain, there’s a larger long-term cost to the health of the planet.

Now that you know all this, I’m very happy to report that if you know where to look you can still find these plump little legumes in non-genetically modified, non-hexane washed forms.  To find them in packaged foods, look for the following labels: USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified and Hexane-Free (here’s a report that provides a list of packaged foods using hexane-free soy).  Another safe bet is to stick with whole-food forms of soy such as organic tofu, edamame and tempeh.  When you eat the whole-food version, you still get all the positive protein, and even better, in the form Mother Nature intended.  Remember the saying, Mama knows best.

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