The mainstream media has got news for you these days: Overweight? Try soy! Hot-flashes? Eat soy! Blotchy skin? Rub on some soy! Lactose intolerant? Soy!
With all the ads on TV and all the products popping up everywhere, you’d think soy foods were the answer to everything that ails you. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the well-crafted, expensive PR campaign, soy is not a health food, and people need to know the havoc it has wrought on both our bodies and the environment.
A Brief History of Soy
At this same time, the bigwigs in the soybean industry got the bright idea that if they could demonize the competition by making saturated fats like lard and coconut oil appear to be the cause of heart disease—the nation’s number one killer—people wouldn’t pay much attention to the negative findings coming out about soybean oil. Starting in the mid-1980s, the soybean oil industry began a multi-million dollar anti-saturated fat campaign. Saturated fats increased cholesterol, they said, and high cholesterol causes heart disease. The tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) were singled out as being the worst offenders because of their high saturated fat content.
Some, but not all, saturated fats can raise total cholesterol, (coconut and palm oils do NOT) but there is no solid evidence that high cholesterol actually causes heart disease. That is why high cholesterol is only considered a “risk factor” rather than a cause. But that didn’t stop the soy industry. The soybean industry fed misleading information to gullible consumer advocate groups like The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which were persuaded to begin their own campaigns against saturated fats.
These high-profile organizations placed anti-saturated fat ads in the media, published newsletters, magazine articles, and books, and lobbied for political action against the use of tropical oils and other saturated fats. Since the bulk of the attack came from supposedly impartial third parties, their message had more impact. People were swayed against saturated fats and the tropical oils they had been using safely for hundreds of years.
Restaurants and food manufacturers, sensitive to customer fear, began removing these fats from their foods and replacing them with vegetable oils. Tropical oil consumption plummeted while soybean oil sales skyrocketed. In the United States, soybean oil soon accounted for about 80 percent of all the vegetable oil consumed.
During this time, one thing the soybean industry conveniently neglected to tell the public was that the saturated fats were not being replaced with ordinary vegetable oil, but rather by hydrogenated soybean oil! Hydrogenated soybean oil contains toxic trans fatty acids and is far more damaging to the heart than any other fat. Trans fats have also been linked to numerous other health problems including diabetes, cancer, and various autoimmune diseases. In terms of health, trans fat is absolutely the worse fat that could be used.
The soy industry was aware of many of the detrimental effects associated with hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans fats, but they succeeded in demonizing all saturated fats, including healthy coconut and palm oils, for the sake of profit. The plan was an overwhelming financial success. Over the next two decades hydrogenated vegetable oils found their way into over 40 percent of all the foods on supermarket shelves, amounting to about 40,000 different products. Hydrogenated soybean oil consumption dramatically increased, and so did numerous diseases now found to be associated with trans fats.
With the growing awareness of the dangers of trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils and the landmark announcement in 2002 from the U.S. Institute of Medicine stating that “no level of trans fats is safe in the diet,” tropical oils are returning. Careful review of previous research and more current medical studies have exonerated the tropical oils from the claim that they promote heart disease. In fact, they appear to help protect against heart disease as well as many of the other diseases now known to be linked to hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Many restaurants and food manufacturers are now replacing their hydrogenated soybean oil with palm oil. Consequently, soybean oil sales are declining. In an effort to protect their profits, the soy industry has resorted to two strategies: 1) diversifying their market with new soy products like margarine, soymilk, “nutrition” bars, protein powders, pseudo-meats, livestock feed, biofuel, and more, and 2) returning to demonizing the competition in order to make their products more acceptable.
Desperate to find an alternative means of attack, the soybean industry has found a new ally in highly vocal, politically active environmental groups. Fueled by financial support and misleading data from the soy industry, some environmental groups have now waged a war against palm oil on the grounds that palm cultivation is destroying the environment. They claim that rainforests are being leveled to make room for palm plantations, destroying the ecology and bringing endangered species, such as the orangutan, to the brink of extinction.
Anyone with any sense of responsibility for the environment would be swayed by this argument. The problem, however, is that while palm oil plantations are responsible for some deforestation, the soybean industry is causing more destruction to the environment than probably any other agricultural industry on the planet.
Soy and the Environment
Today, industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers in speeding up destruction and further fragmenting the great Brazilian wilderness. Between the years 2000 and 2005, Brazil lost more than 50,000 square miles of rainforest—a large portion of that for soybean farming.
Soybean production in the Brazilian Amazon soared after heat-tolerant varieties were introduced in 1997. In just ten years, exports of soybeans grown in the Amazon Basin have reached 42 million tons a year. Total annual soybean production in Brazil today is about 85 million tons, and Brazil will soon surpass the United States as the world’s leader in soybean production.
Brazil holds about 30 percent of the Earth’s remaining tropical rainforest. The Amazon Basin produces roughly 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, creates much of its own rainfall, and harbors hundreds of thousands of species, many yet to be discovered. The Brazilian rainforest is the world’s most biologically diverse habitat.
Close to 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been cut down. At the current rate of clearing, scientists predict that 40 percent of the Amazon will be destroyed and a further 20 percent degraded within two decades. If that happens, the forest’s ecology will begin to unravel. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die, the fragile rainforest soils blow away, and the forest becomes a desert. Currently trees are being wantonly burned to create open land for soybean cultivation. Consequently, Brazil has become one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The decimation of the Amazon is, for the most part, done legally. Even the governor of the state of Mato Gross, on the edge of the Amazon Basin, is a part of it. Governor Blairo Maggi is the world’s largest single soybean producer, growing 350,000 acres. That’s about 547 square miles of Amazon rainforest that have been leveled for soybean production! He is just one of many industrial-sized soybean operations in the area. In 2005, Greenpeace awarded Maggi the Golden Chain Saw award for his role in leveling the rainforest.
But, clearing and tilling the land for soybean production is only part of the problem. Soybean cultivation destroys habitat for wildlife including endangered or unknown species, and increases greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Soybeans need large amounts of acid-neutralizing lime, as well as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all of which are creating an environmental hazard. Toxic chemicals contaminate the forest, poison rivers, and destroy wildlife. And, in undeveloped countries, soy production disrupts the life of indigenous tribes who depend on the forest for food and shelter, replaces traditional crops, and transfers the value-added from processing from the local population to multinational corporations.
The environmental destruction caused by soybean farming isn’t limited to the Amazon; it occurs throughout the world wherever soybeans are produced. In the U.S. alone, over 80 million acres of land are covered in soybeans. That’s hundreds of thousands of acres of deforestation, habitat destruction, over-cultivation and destruction of soils, and billions of tons of toxic chemicals spewed into the environment year after year, contaminating our soils, water, and destroying wildlife and human health. And new, genetically modified soy was specifically developed to withstand the toxins so farmers could spray even more pesticides on them without diminishing yields.
Over 80% of all soybeans grown in the U.S. (and two-thirds worldwide) are genetically-modified to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, which is usually sold under the trade name Roundup. Because so much Roundup is used on these crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the limit on residues of glyphosate that can remain on the crop. Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues shows that corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety at the FDA, but the increased levels have remained in force.
Soybeans are arguably the most environmentally offensive agricultural crop in the world. Replacing soybean oil with coconut, sunflower or olive oil is not only a healthier option, but each is a relatively low-impact crop that would save countless acres of land from untold environmental damage.
Soybeans and Health
In fact, the people of China, Japan, and other countries in Asia eat very little soy, and they typically only eat it after it has been fermented for long periods of time, which destroys the toxins inherent in it. The soy industry’s own figures show that soy consumption in China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan ranges from 9.3 to 36 grams per day. That’s equivalent to a few, small blocks of tofu floating in a bowl of miso soup. Soy has never been considered a substitute for animal protein in Asia.
In contrast, many Americans today think nothing of consuming a cup of tofu, a couple glasses of soy milk, handfuls of soy nuts, soy “energy bars,” and soy “veggie” burgers, even all in one day! Infants on soy formula receive the most of all, both in quantity and in proportion to body weight. Soy is also the key ingredient in faux-meat and dairy products with names like Silk, Soysage, Not Dogs, Fakin Bakin and Tofurkey. Then you have to consider the “hidden” soy in the form of vegetable oil, protein isolate, and soy lecithin found in over 70% of all packaged foods and just about everything you’d find in a fast food restaurant. It’s used as filler in hamburgers, as vegetable oil and an emulsifier. It’s in salad dressing, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets.
“Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products,” wrote Mary Vance for Terrain Magazing. “It hides in tofu dogs under aliases such as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and lecithin—which is troubling, since the processing required to hydrolyze soy protein into vegetable protein produces excitotoxins such as glutamate (think MSG) and aspartate (a component of aspartame), which cause brain-cell death.”
In short, there is no historical precedent for eating the large amounts of soy food now being consumed, and we are all participating in an experiment whose outcome is still unclear.
Since we Americans eat so much of it, it’s important to understand how soy can affect us. What we do know about soy is a bit alarming:
There’s nothing natural about today’s modern soy protein products; they are very much factory-made pseudo-foods. Textured soy protein, for example, is made by forcing defatted soy flour through a machine called an extruder under conditions of such extreme heat and pressure that the very structure of the soy protein is changed. Production differs little from the extrusion technology used to produce starch-based packing “peanuts,” fiber-based industrial products, and plastic toy parts, bowls, and plates.
The process of making soy protein isolate (SPI) begins with defatted soybean meal, which is mixed with a caustic alkaline solution to remove the fiber, then washed in an acid solution to precipitate out the protein. The protein curds are then dipped into another alkaline chemical solution and spray-dried at extremely high temperatures. SPI is then often spun into protein fibers using technology borrowed from the textile industry. These refining processes improve taste and digestibility, but destroy the vitamin, mineral, and protein quality, and increase levels of carcinogens such as nitrosamines. Soy protein isolate appears in so many products that consumers would never guess that the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) decreed in 1979 that the only safe use for SPIs was for sealers for cardboard packages.
Soy and Allergies
Soy allergies are on the rise for three reasons: the growing use of soy infant formula, the increase in soy-containing foods in grocery stores, and the possibility of the greater allergenicity of genetically modified soybeans.
According to Monsanto’s own tests, Roundup Ready genetically-engineered soybeans contain 29 percent less of the brain nutrient choline, and 27 percent more trypsin inhibitor—the potential allergen that interferes with protein digestion—than normal soybeans. Soy products are often prescribed and consumed for their phytoestrogen content, but according to the company’s tests, the genetically altered soybeans have lower levels of phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that affects levels of phytoestrogens. And levels of lectins, which are most likely the culprit in soy allergies, are nearly double in the genetically-engineered variety.
Soy and Hormones
In the years since soy formula has been in the marketplace, parents and pediatricians have reported growing numbers of boys whose physical maturation is either delayed or does not occur at all. Breasts, underdeveloped gonads, undescended testicles (cryptorchidism), and steroid insufficiencies are increasingly common. Sperm counts are also falling. Because of the estrogens in soy, men and boys, in particular, should eat little to no soy.
Soy formula is bad news for girls as well. With increased estrogens in the environment and the diet, an alarming number of girls are entering puberty much earlier than normal. One percent of girls now show signs of puberty, such as breast development or pubic hair, before the age of three. By the age of eight, 14.7 percent of Caucasian girls and 48.3 percent of African American girls had one or both of these characteristics. The fact that blacks experience earlier puberty than whites is not a racial difference but a recent phenomenon.
Most experts blame this epidemic of “precocious puberty” on environmental estrogens from plastics, pesticides, commercial meats, etc., but some pediatric endocrinologists believe that soy is a significant contributor. Of all the estrogens found in the environment, soy is the likeliest explanation of why African American girls are reaching puberty so early. Since its establishment in 1974, the federal government’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program has provided free infant formula to teenage and other low-income mothers while failing to encourage breastfeeding. Because of perceived or real lactose intolerance, black babies are much more likely to receive soy formula than white babies.
Most of the fears concerning soy formula have focused on estrogens. There are other problems as well, notably much higher levels of aluminum, fluoride, and manganese than are found in either breastmilk or dairy formulas. These metals are byproducts of soy processing and all three have the potential to adversely affect brain development. Although trace amounts of manganese are vital to the development of the brain, toxic levels accrued from ingestion of soy formula during infancy have been found in children suffering from attention-deficit disorders, dyslexia, and other learning problems.
Yet the belief persists that soy hormones are “safe” because they are “weak” and “natural.” Although the soy industry has claimed that soy estrogens are anywhere from 10,000 to 1,000,000 times weaker than the human estrogen estradiol, the correct figure is only 1,200 times as weak. Though this still sounds quite weak, it is not—because of the quantity of these estrogens ingested by infants on soy formula, and by children and adults who eat soy every day.
Americans consume far more soy phytoestrogens (called isoflavones) than were ever part of a traditional diet in Asia. The average isoflavone intake in China is 3 milligrams, or 0.05 mg per kilogram of body weight. In Japan, the figures range from 10 to 28 mg, or 0.17 to 0.47 mg isoflavones per kg of body weight. In contrast, infants receiving soy formula average 38 mg of isoflavones, which comes to a shocking 6.25 mg/kg of body weight.
The Right Soy
The bottom line is when it comes to soy, we are all participating in what Daniel M. Sheehan, former senior toxicologist with the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research, has called a “large, uncontrolled and basically unmonitored human experiment.” And soy cultivation—particularly genetically engineered soy—is one of the most devastating things we can do to the environment.
For more information about soy:
This post is part of Fight Back Fridays hosted by Food Renegade!
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