The Billion-Dollar Myth - How did soy get its reputation as a cure-all for modern ailments? Follow the money ...

May 19, 2003

By Nina Planck

Health claims for soy are remarkable: preventing or curing hot flashes, breast and prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease. They are also dubious. Still more alarming, the advice to eat soy three times a day is potentially dangerous for men, women, children, and babies alike. Soy poses real health risks, including sterility, cancer, and stunted development. Yet few journalists have seriously examined the extraordinary claims of the well-funded soy lobby.

Meanwhile, the soy hype has reached a fever pitch. Ask any woman at the gym or man in the supermarket. Even casual readers of the health or food pages are very likely to agree with the statement: "Soy is good for me. I should eat more of it."

In the cradle of the bohemian bourgeoisie, New York City's Greenwich Village, they agree. The Soy Luck Club is a new shop and cafe featuring all things made of soy: mayonnaise, dressing, bread, pasta, baby formula, and -- of course -- soy lattes. Owner John Pi explained his inspiration: "Look at the soy section in the supermarket. It's almost as big as the dairy department."

See? Follow the money. And when a super-food reaches such an exalted place in conventional wisdom and popular culture, beware: big money, and in this case Big Food, is at work.

How did this happen to a small yellow bean, unknown in America until the 1920s when the government started paying farmers to grow it?

In America, soy farming is now big business, worth more than $12 billion in 1999. The US produces nearly half of the global supply of soy beans, much of which is eaten as "oil cakes" by animals confined in factory farms. But as a commodity sold in bulk, soy beans and oil are not worth much. As a convenience food for human beings, however, with slick marketing and the halo of a health food, soy is worth billions. Like any value-added product, soy foods are highly profitable. Compared to what you pay for a pint of soy "ice cream," the cost of the ingredients is tiny.

For a long time, tofu was the best known human food made from soy, but its niche was small. Apart from vegetarians and fans of Asian food, few Americans ate the bland white curd. Now soy is sexy: there is "silky" soy milk, soy cheese, soy sausage, soy ice cream. These new products are certainly jazzier than tofu, but without sugar and artificial flavorings, they taste of nothing much.

A large part of their appeal rests on health claims. Soy, we are told, is good for us. In a climate of fad diets and food fears, the soy market has thrived on the stampede away from animal foods -- in this case, real milk and real meat. Soy milk is one of the fastest-growing foods in America, exploding from $2 million per year in 1980 to $300 million in 1999.

The little soy bean has traveled a long way, from animal troughs to health food stores and smart cafes, and finally to doctors' orders. Once a commodity, soy bean oil has crept onto our plates. Now almost 80% of the oil Americans eat is soy. Soy bean oil is found in hundreds of processed foods. Baked goods, tortilla chips, margarine, mayonnaise, and imitation dairy products all contain soy. Soy has taken the place in the standard American diet of the real fats in butter, milk, meat, and fish. We are eating more and more soy, largely due to the unchallenged health claims of the soy lobby.

But there is something wrong here. Soy, as most Americans eat it, is not a health food.

Why not? Let's start with soy bean oil. Soy oil is a manufactured food, not a real food. Soy beans are made into highly refined oil with factory methods that are not good for you.

Soy oil is produced with immense heat and pressure in a process called extraction. Heat-treated oils go rancid -- in other words, they spoil -- and rancid oils are carcinogenic. (Vegetable oils like olive oil must be cold-pressed to prevent this damage.) But the heat and pressure are not enough. To finish extracting the last bit of oil from soy beans, factories treat the pulp with chemical solvents like hexane.

Next, the rancid soy bean oil is chemically altered, or hydrogenated. That means the liquid oil is blasted with hydrogen to make it solid at room temperature, like butter.

Hydrogenation works like this: Start with the cheapest rancid oils and mix them with tiny metal particles -- usually nickel oxide. Put this oil-and-metal mix in a reactor under high heat and pressure and blast it with hydrogen to make it solid. Use a soap-like emulsifier to give it a creamy texture. Steam-clean the fat to remove its foul odors, bleach it to get rid of its gray color, and dye it to make it yellow like real butter. Finally, pack the fat in tubs and sell it as "heart-healthy" margarine. Does margarine sound like a real or phony food?

Hydrogenated or trans-fats are handy for Big Food -- the industrial farmers, processors, and junk-food factories that produce most of the food Americans eat. Trans-fats have a longer shelf-life, and the firm texture resembles real fats like butter. When you eat soy oil in foods other than margarine, it is almost always hydrogenated. Processed foods such as cakes, cookies, mayonnaise, and corn chips contain hydrogenated oil. But these man-made fats are dangerous. They raise cholesterol levels, block the body's use of healthy fats, and are linked to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine says trans-fats "have no known health benefits." Trans-fats are so bad for you, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon require them to be labeled. Even that giant of Big Food, McDonald's, has decided to stop making fries with trans-fats.

When you learn how it is produced, "healthy" soy begins to sound less appetizing. But oil and trans-fats are only the first act for the soy bean, which plays a starring role in phony foods. Big Food has had to find more tricks to transform the humble soy bean into a seductive health food.

The soy bean is a unique plant. It is one of the few legumes with more protein than carbohydrate. When you press soy beans to make oil, a lot of protein remains. Any frugal factory manager tries to find a use for byproducts. The soy industry has ingeniously turned this waste into soy foods with a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But there is a problem. Animals, not people, eat soy. Unlike other cultures, Americans have no tradition of eating soy. This novel food was unknown to our grandparents. Although we have been eating margarine since the 1940s, no one called it "soy butter." There were no recipes for soy in your grandmother's kitchen, or bags of soy beans at the corner grocery. To convince us to buy foods made from soy, Big Food has had to do two things: make phony foods look like real foods, and create the impression that soy "milk" and "cheese" are good for you.

They are not. Soy bean processing flunks the real food test: that the food should become more wholesome in processing, not less. When the food giants make soy protein, the results are not wholesome. Soy protein processing produces glutamic acid -- the natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a brain poison -- and toxins and carcinogens are formed.

The FDA refused to approve isolated soy protein as a safe food additive with the designation "Generally Recognized as Safe."

Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland withdrew its application for the coveted GRAS status for soy protein, after an outcry from scientists about the toxins and carcinogens that come with it. They can still put soy protein in your food, but they have to get pre-market approval for every product.

Isolated soy protein is no health food. But we don't eat soy protein with a spoon. How do we eat it? It is the main ingredient in soy burgers, ice cream, milk shakes, and fake cheese. These soy protein products are phony foods -- but they must look like the real foods they imitate. So the soy industry transforms a small yellow soy bean into something resembling a hamburger. They make soy "milk" and "ice cream" white and creamy.

The other ingredients in these foods are no better for you than the soy protein that goes into them. Soy milk, for example, is simply a cocktail of soy protein, sugar, and vegetable oil. The "natural" MSG formed in soy processing is already bad for you, but even more MSG, and more flavorings, are added. Imitation foods need a lot of help to be tasty. Many savory soy foods are loaded with additives to give them the flavor of the real foods they mimic. Most imitation meat, for example, contains man-made MSG, which causes migraines and is associated with brain cancer.

But it gets worse. The soy bean itself is dangerous. Even the soy industry admits that soy products contain toxins. These toxins are usually referred to as "anti-nutrients" because they make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. Soy is rich in the anti-nutrient phytic acid. Phytic acid binds with iron and zinc, which are essential for the health of the brain and nervous system. That means the body can't use the iron and zinc it has -- or copper, calcium, and magnesium. Too many phytates retard growth in children. Soy also contains substances called trypsin inhibitors. They make it difficult to digest proteins.

Soy can be bad for your sex life too, especially if you’re a man. It contains high levels of phytoestrogens -- plant compounds that mimic estrogens. Like many environmental pollutants, phytoestrogens act as "endocrine disrupters," which means they interfere with our hormones. By acting like estrogens, these plant compounds are bad for the sexual development and virility of boys and men. Buddhist monks knew this; they ate tofu to reduce their libido.

Women should also be wary of soy. Studies show that high doses of phytoestrogens from soy may contribute to breast cancer. The soy phytoestrogen genistein encourages cancer in breast cells. Yet soy proponents claim that phytoestrogens protect women against breast cancer. A British government report found little evidence that soy protects against breast cancer, and some evidence that soy foods increase cancer risks. Soy foods can stimulate the growth of tumors that feed on estrogen. Genistein is also linked to thyroid trouble, which affects appetite, mood, and sex drive in both men and women. The soy industry also claims that phytoestrogens reduce the symptoms of menopause, including night sweats and hot flashes. But the Journal of Clinical Oncology reported that soy isoflavone -- a phytoestrogen -- was "no better than a placebo" in controlling hot flashes in women with breast cancer. That means candy would be as effective.

The soy lobby claims that because soy is rich in calcium it prevents osteoporosis -- thinning of the bones -- a serious problem for older people. But the opposite is true. Soy foods cause deficiencies in calcium and Vitamin D, which are essential for strong bones.

Soy milk is particularly harmful for babies, yet the soy industry markets soy formula aggressively, and the US government pays low-income women to buy it. The high doses of phytoestrogens in soy infant formula may disrupt hormones, development, and immunity. According to a 1986 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, babies who drank soy-based formula had twice the rate of Type I diabetes of babies who did not. Soy milk is also linked to thyroid disease in babies. One quarter of American infants who are not breastfed drink soy formula. A campaign called Soy Alert is working to reduce infant soy feeding.

All this sounds damning. Aha, say the soy advocates, but what about the Asian diet? They eat tons of soy, and get less breast and prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease than we do.

Wrong. Asians do eat soy. However, they eat soy in small quantities, usually as a fermented condiment, and usually with an animal protein, such as fish broth, to make the soy digestible. Perhaps the most dangerous myth the soy lobby spreads about the Asian diet is that soy is a main source of protein. Soy is simply not a substitute for animal foods in traditional Asian diets. According to KC Chang, editor of Food in Chinese Culture, the total caloric intake due to soy in the Chinese diet in the 1930s was 1.5%, compared with 65% from pork.

The soy lobby has distorted the story of the Asian diet in other ways. Asians have lower rates of osteoporosis. The soy lobby credits calcium-rich soy. But it is real foods -- calcium from fish and meat broth, and Vitamin D from seafood and other animal fats -- that prevent bone thinning in those cultures. Broth is the world's oldest health food, but sadly there is no broth lobby.

Moreover, Asians eat a very different kind of soy from Americans. In Asia it is well known that raw and unfermented soy beans are indigestible. Soy farming started around 1100 BC in China, where it was used to build soil fertility and feed animals. Soy beans were not considered fit for humans until the Chinese learned to ferment them, which makes them digestible. Asian diets now include fermented soy beans in the form of natto, miso, tamari, and tempeh.

Soy producers want you to eat more soy -- more than the Asians eat, and more than is good for you. The Japanese and Chinese eat 10 grams of soy per day -- about two teaspoons. Yet a soy manufacturer recommends Americans eat ten times what the Japanese eat -- 100 grams of soy protein per day. In The Soy Zone, Barry Sears recommends a daily diet of a minimum of 50 grams of soy, and up to 75 grams for women and 100 grams for men.

It's like red wine: a glass or two a day may be good for you; a bottle or two every day rots your liver.

But never mind what the Asians eat. What do we eat? Many Americans believe soy is a good meat substitute. The experts tell vegetarians they can eat soy to take the place of real foods like turkey or steak. Indeed, entire fad diets, like the one Barry Sears advocates, are built on soy. Wrong again. Soy is simply inadequate as a main source of protein.

First, the claim that tofu will provide all the protein you need is false. Tofu is not a complete protein: it lacks two essential amino acids which the body cannot produce, and should be eaten with other proteins, as Asians eat it. Second, soy foods are said to provide Vitamin B12, especially important for vegetarians, because B12 is vital for health and the best source of B12 is meat. But the compound in soy that looks like B12 cannot be used by the body, and in fact soy increases the body's need for B12.

In America, Big Food brought the soy bean out of the feed bucket and onto the table, without making it digestible to humans first. With few exceptions, like tamari, the vast majority of soy products in the US are not fermented. Even the soy industry acknowledges the importance of fermentation. So does the soy-selling Barry Sears, but his Soy Zone recipes are crammed with the worst forms of unfermented industrial soy, like soy protein powders and meat substitutes. Why did he go crazy for soy? Sears is famous for the Zone Diet, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. The diet "hinges on dramatically reducing the amount of grains, starches, and refined carbohydrates you eat," writes Sears. He does allow fruit, low-starch vegetables, and soy, up to three times a day. Clearly, peddling the Soy Zone was the only way Sears could sell his blockbuster, high-protein Zone Diet to people who do not eat meat or fish.

The story of soy, from farm to factory, food to fad, oil cake to Rx, is disturbing. It started with a commodity crop, heavily subsidized by the government. Next came an industrial process: extracting soy bean oil to make phony foods like margarine, purely because it was cheaper than real butter. That led to an industrial waste product, soy protein. Then a frugal factory manager invented a human food from the leftovers. Meanwhile, bogus arguments for a vegan diet gained credibility; animal foods like milk and beef became taboo; and myths about the traditional Asian diet spread. Along came baby boomers and other health-conscious spenders who, propelled by duty, guilt, and advertising, flocked to novel soy foods promising health and longevity. Yet people still wanted to eat protein, which is essential to human life -- and tastes so good. So a wave of fad diets dubbed protein -- especially meat and fish -- the secret of slender health. But what were the dedicated vegetarians to do now, with meat back in fashion? Soy sausage to the rescue.

The soy foods Americans eat flunk the real food test. Either eat them as the Asians have for thousands of years -- in small quantities, fermented, with animal foods. Or don't eat them at all.

For more information about the soy myth, see Why Soy Can Damage Your Health and The Weston A. Price Foundation (TM) for Wise Traditions.

Nina Planck is the founder of Local Foods, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. She grew up on a farm in Virginia. The Plancks make a living selling vegetables at farmers markets. Nina started the first farmers markets in London in 1999. In July 2003 Nina becomes Director of Greenmarket in New York City. Under the aegis of the Council on the Environment, Greenmarket runs 44 farmers markets in 31 locations in New York City. Nina is the author of The Farmers' Market Cookbook. Her next book, on why beef, butter, and cream are good for you and margarine and soy milk are not, will be published by HarperCollins.