I am not a vegetarian, though I eat significantly less meat than most Americans. For a long time, however, I had a tendency to buy meat substitutes like Boca Burgers or Chix Patties, as well as soymilk. Several years ago, I cut way back on my processed soy intake, and use rice milk and Quorn products instead of soy. I am reconsidering that as well and may attempt to pay more attention to supporting local sources of meat and dairy instead – though I really do like the Quorn products.
Boing Boing recently linked to a Mother Jones article which links to a report on soy products by The Cornucopia Institute that suggests another reason to stay away from processed soy products: hexane.
Hexane is used to process nearly all conventional soy protein ingredients and edible oils and is prohibited when processing organic foods. It is used in the food processing industry as a solvent to separate the oil from the protein and fiber of grains, including soybeans.
It is a cost-effective solvent and highly efficient at creating high-protein isolates, but it is also a neurotoxic chemical that poses a serious occupational hazard to workers and is an environmental air pollutant . . . Residue tests show that small amounts of hexane can and do appear in ingredients processed with this petrochemical. The government does not require that companies test for hexane residues before selling foods to consumers, including soy-based infant formula.
Rather than simply linking to the link that points to the link that links to the report, I figured I would actually take the time to read the full report and give you a bit more insight into what the actual report says. Especially in light of the bruhaha, misinformation and retractions that accompanied Boing Boing’s post.
However, before we begin, it’s important to remember that The Cornfield Institute is not an independent science organization but an advocacy group with the following mission statement:
Seeking economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Through research, advocacy, and economic development our goal is to empower farmers – partnered with consumers – in support of ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.
Now, I’m not saying that their findings are necessarily wrong or that anyone should even be suspicious of their motives, simply stating that they have a specific mission and context which has a direct relationship to the findings in their report. Additionally, I support and sympathize with their goals so may add some of my own bias to this essay. Too often I will simply link to information about how those nasty, bad, and evil corporations are trying to kill us or poison us or simply reap a windfall of profit despite causing harm, so I wanted to take the time here to read more about the issue and educate myself instead of simply yelling headlines.
The report, officially and titled “Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry” is divided into two main parts. The first examines and scores various companies with soy-based products on a rubric that includes the following considerations:
- Ownership structure
- Soybean purchases
- Organic product line
- Sourcing & Farmer Relationships
- Prevention of GMO Contamination
- Soy lecithin
Basically, the report is looking at the ecology that surrounds the soybean and not simply the claims that such-and-such a company uses organic soybeans. There is a lot of useful information in this section about how companies can manipulate the systems in place for labeling food as organic, as well as the how weak some of the oversights are on overseas “organic” standards. In some cases, the certifiers and farmers of Chinese “organic” soy growers were never even given the standards that they were supposed to meet. Overall, I highly recommend reading this part of the report in order to get a much better sense of the differences between companies and their relationship to farmers, the environment, as well as how open and honest they are about their practices. If you drink soy milk, for instance, you might want to consider switching brands after learning the differences between EdenSoy products (which have the highest scores) and Silk products (which have some of the lowest scores).
The second half of the report looks primarily at the issue of processing soy lecithin with hexane.
To make conventional soy protein ingredients, food manufacturers start the process by literally immersing soybeans in a hexane “bath.” A common additional technique to further separate out the protein is bathing soy flakes in aqueous alcohols such as methanol, ethanol, or isopropyl alcohol. Processors also commonly use acid and alkaline solutions to adjust the pH, and use high heat and high pressure to texturize the soy protein.
There is, according to the Cornucopia Institute, very little study done on residual hexane in foods, and the majority of the hexane does evaporate quite quickly. I am not even a little qualified to get into a discussion on the merits of this argument and you will need to do your own research on both hexane and its use in food processing. I would argue that most people aren’t, yet this is the main flash point that most people on Boing Boing seemed to rant and rave about. Of course most people’s gut instinct is going to be “neurotoxin near my food, oh my, that must be a bad thing.” And well it may be. However, I don’t think that this report is particularly fear-based in the way it approaches the subject and the authors do admit that little is known about any possible affects from potential residues left behind by the processing instead of, as some might, screaming loudly that hexane in our food is killing us. In some cases, the certifiers and farmers of Chinese “organic” soy growers were never even given the standards that they were supposed to meet. Overall, I highly recommend reading this part of the report in order to get a much better sense of the differences between companies and their relationship to farmers, the environment, as well as how open and honest they are about their practices. If you drink soy milk, for instance, you might want to consider switching brands after learning the differences between EdenSoy products (which have the highest scores) and Silk products (which have some of the lowest scores).
In the end, if you consume a lot of soy-based products, you should at least skim this report to get a sense of the corporate practices of the companies you are supporting and the questions raised by certain practices in the industry.