Say it isn’t Soy

Say it isn’t Soy.

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

Sorry I haven’t written lately. Life (son, work, documentary, training-in that order) has gotten in the way.

I got an e-mail from a friend of mine saying that, though she wasn’t a vegetarian, her partner was. She said she wanted to include some sort of protein in the meals she cooked (it’s good to have all the macronutrients represented on your plate) and was wondering what my thoughts on soy were.

Well, I used to think soy was the bomb! After all, the health claims surrounding soy were ubiquitous. You literally couldn’t take a step without stepping in a claim–which, if you can pick up on my not-so-subtle analogy, you’ll see what I now think of those advertisements. And that’s what they were, ads to convince people that soy was good for you. Now, have you ever seen a commercial for breathing? Breathing is good for you. So they don’t need to do ads for it (though as our air gets worse, I’m sure those commercials are coming). Deprived of oxygen for 3-4mins, a person will die. Everyone knows this. But what everyone should realize is that the more strongly something is marketed as being healthy for you, the worse it probably is for you.

But a billion Chinese and Japanese folks can’t be wrong, can they? While it’s true that the soybean first appeared during the Chou Dynasty (1134-246 BC), it did not become part of the Chinese menu for some time. Instead it was used in the process of crop rotation, fixing levels of nitrogen in the soil so that the Chinese could grow grains more suitable for human consumption like rice and millet. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Chinese discovered fermentation did soy, in the form of miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce, become widely consumed.

See, the Chinese knew that unfermented soybeans contain many different substances which make it unsuitable for human consumption. Foremost among these is phytic acid. Phytates block the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. So even if your diet is rich in these nutrients, the consumption of soy can very easily lead to a deficiency in any one of them. And they are all essential for health. Vegetarians who shun animal products like meat and diary and who opt for soy to “replace” this staple in the diet are, therefore, at a greater risk for a deficiency in any one of these nutrients.

Secondly, a large amount of trypsin and other enzyme inhibitors are present in soy blocking the absorption of these enzymes which are necessary for protein digestion. In tests, rats fed a diet of soy failed to grow normally. And everyone hates to see a malnourished rat…

Consuming soy that has been fermented lowers the levels of these “anti-nutrients” and makes items like miso, natto, and tempeh o.k. to eat. Tofu, on the other hand, has these anti-nutrients concentrated in the liquid and still present in the curd–thus its consumption is wrought with the same risks as soy in general.

So how do the Chinese and Japanese stay so healthy on a diet so rich in soy? Well, maybe they don’t eat as much as you thought.   8 grams/day in Japan and 9 grams/day in China–that’s less than 2 teaspoons. And while the Japanese do suffer less from some forms of cancer than here in America, cancer of the esophagus, liver, and stomach are much higher among the Japanese population than people in the U.S.

Healthy? That’s what the United Soybean Program, which spends 80 million dollars a year to “strengthen the position of soybeans in the marketplace and maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets for uses for soybeans and soybean products” would like you to believe. 72 million acres of U.S. farmland is now devoted to soy, and it’s one of the most highly pesticide ridden crops (and now genetically modified) grown today. Brazil, the second largest exporter of soy in the world next to the U.S., sacrifices millions of acres of rain forest to meet the demands of a growing number of people duped into eating isolated soy protein and textured vegetable protein for the reported health benefits. Cholesterol lowering is one of these wonders. But the “benefits” were only seen in individuals whose serum cholesterol levels were 250mg/dl or higher!

Soy is also high in isoflavones, a class of organic compounds and biomolecules related to flavonoids which act as phytoestrogens in mammals. These phytoestrogens, specifically genistein, are potent endocrine disruptors, causing infertility, reproductive problems, thyroid disease, and liver disease in test animals. But that’s for animals in experiments which were fed an extreme amount of soy, right?? From an article by Sally Fallon:

“Twenty-five grams of soy protein isolate, the minimum amount PTI claimed to have cholesterol-lowering effects, contains from 50 to 70 mg of isoflavones. It took only 45 mg of isoflavones in premenopausal women to exert significant biological effects, including a reduction in hormones needed for adequate thyroid function. These effects lingered for three months after soy consumption was discontinued.

One hundred grams of soy protein - the maximum suggested cholesterol-lowering dose, and the amount recommended by Protein Technologies International - can contain almost 600 mg of isoflavones, an amount that is undeniably toxic. In 1992, the Swiss health service estimated that 100 grams of soy protein provided the estrogenic equivalent of the Pill.”

In fact, male children fed soy formula had reduced testicle size while female children experienced an earlier onset of puberty. Alarming statistics like this prompted the New Zealand government in 1998 to issue a health warning about soy in infant formula.  While animals on soy based feed need supplementation with lysine for normal growth, the presence of soy in school lunch programs goes widely unnoticed (except by the wallets of the soy producers) and, therefore, a growing number of our children may be at risk of the health consequences mentioned here and in countless other scientific publications and resources.

So what was my reply to my friend regarding preparing meals for her vegetarian partner?  Get her to eat fish or meat or something…just say it isn’t soy!



Except that most fish and meat (well, fish IS meat, so that’s redundant) has other horrible stuff in it that makes it very unhealthy. While eating fully organic, grass-fed, no-hormone meat is possible, it isn’t very easy for the average person, and it’s definitely more expensive than ‘normal’ meat. In addition, people have to be VERY careful of what fish (and shellfish) they eat, since a lot of it is laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals (and very non-environmentally-friendly raised). Brazil cuts down vast swaths of rainforest for cattle pasture, too, so that’s no better than cutting it down for soy. In general, meat is way way way more inefficiently raised. You can feed many more people on an acre of land if it’s used for plants than if it’s used for meat.


I think the folks at Weston A Price say it best:

I know that some vegetarians have claimed that livestock require pasturage that could be used to farm grains to feed starving people in Third World countries. It is also claimed that feeding animals contributes to world hunger because livestock are eating foods that could go to feed humans. The solution to world hunger, therefore, is for people to become vegetarians. These arguments are illogical and simplistic.

The first argument ignores the fact that about 2/3 of our Earth’s dry land is unsuitable for farming. It is primarily the open range, desert and mountainous areas that provide food to grazing animals and that land is currently being put to good use (1).

The second argument is faulty as well because it ignores the vital contributions that livestock animals make to humanity’s well-being. It is also misleading to think that the foods grown and given to feed livestock could be diverted to feed humans:

Agricultural animals have always made a major contribution to the welfare of human societies by providing food, shelter, fuel, fertilizer and other products and services. They are a renewable resource, and utilize another renewable resource, plants, to produce these products and services. In addition, the manure produced by the animals helps improve soil fertility and, thus, aids the plants. In some developing countries the manure cannot be utilized as a fertilizer but is dried as a source of fuel.

There are many who feel that because the world population is growing at a faster rate than is the food supply, we are becoming less and less able to afford animal foods because feeding plant products to animals is an inefficient use of potential human food. It is true that it is more efficient for humans to eat plant products directly rather than to allow animals to convert them to human food. At best, animals only produce one pound or less of human food for each three pounds of plants eaten. However, this inefficiency only applies to those plants and plant products that the human can utilize. The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food. Thus, by their ability to convert inedible plant materials to human food, animals not only do not compete with the human rather they aid greatly in improving both the quantity and the quality of the diets of human societies. (2)

Furthermore, at the present time, there is more than enough food grown in the world to feed all people on the planet. The problem is widespread poverty making it impossible for the starving poor to afford it. In a comprehensive report, the Population Reference Bureau attributed the world hunger problem to poverty, not meat-eating (3). It also did not consider mass vegetarianism to be a solution for world hunger.

What would actually happen, however, if animal husbandry were abandoned in favor of mass agriculture, brought about by humanity turning towards vegetarianism?

If a large number of people switched to vegetarianism, the demand for meat in the United States and Europe would fall, the supply of grain would dramatically increase, but the buying power of poor [starving] people in Africa and Asia wouldn’t change at all.

The result would be very predictable — there would be a mass exodus from farming. Whereas today the total amount of grains produced could feed 10 billion people, the total amount of grain grown in this post-meat world would likely fall back to about 7 or 8 billion. The trend of farmers selling their land to developers and others would accelerate quickly. (4)

In other words, there would be less food available for the world to eat. Furthermore, the monoculture of grains and legumes, which is what would happen if animal husbandry were abandoned and the world relied exclusively on plant foods for its food, would rapidly deplete the soil and require the heavy use of artificial fertilizers, one ton of which requires ten tons of crude oil to produce (5).

As far as the impact to our environment, a closer look reveals the great damage that exclusive and mass farming would do. British organic dairy farmer and researcher Mark Purdey wisely points out that if “veganic agricultural systems were to gain a foothold on the soil, then agrochemical use, soil erosion, cash cropping, prairie-scapes and ill health would escalate.” (6)

Neanderthin author Ray Audette concurs with this view:

Since ancient times, the most destructive factor in the degradation of the environment has been monoculture agriculture. The production of wheat in ancient Sumeria transformed once-fertile plains into salt flats that remain sterile 5,000 years later. As well as depleting both the soil and water sources, monoculture agriculture also produces environmental damage by altering the delicate balance of natural ecosystems. World rice production in 1993, for instance, caused 155 million cases of malaria by providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes in the paddies. Human contact with ducks in the same rice paddies resulted in 500 million cases of influenza during the same year.(7)

There is little doubt, though, that commercial farming methods, whether of plants or animals produce harm to the environment. With the heavy use of agrochemicals, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, hormones, steroids, and antibiotics common in modern agriculture, a better way of integrating animal husbandry with agriculture needs to be found. A possible solution might be a return to “mixed farming,” described below.

The educated consumer and the enlightened farmer together can bring about a return of the mixed farm, where cultivation of fruits, vegetables and grains is combined with the raising of livestock and fowl in a manner that is efficient, economical and environmentally friendly. For example, chickens running free in garden areas eat insect pests, while providing high-quality eggs; sheep grazing in orchards obviate the need for herbicides; and cows grazing in woodlands and other marginal areas provide rich, pure milk, making these lands economically viable for the farmer. It is not animal cultivation that leads to hunger and famine, but unwise agricultural practices and monopolistic distribution systems. (8)

The “mixed farm” is also healthier for the soil, which will yield more crops if managed according to traditional guidelines. Mark Purdey has accurately pointed out that a crop field on a mixed farm will yield up to five harvests a year, while a “mono-cropped” one will only yield one or two (9). Which farm is producing more food for the world’s peoples? Purdey well sums up the ecological horrors of “battery farming” and points to future solutions by saying:

Our agricultural establishments could do very well to outlaw the business-besotted farmers running intensive livestock units, battery systems and beef-burger bureaucracies; with all their wastages, deplorable cruelty, anti-ozone slurry systems; drug/chemical induced immunotoxicity resulting in B.S.E. and salmonella, rain forest eradication, etc. Our future direction must strike the happy, healthy medium of mixed farms, resurrecting the old traditional extensive system as a basic framework, then bolstering up productivity to present day demands by incorporating a more updated application of biological science into farming systems. (10)

It does not appear, then, that livestock farming, when properly practiced, damages the environment. Nor does it appear that world vegetarianism or exclusively relying on agriculture to supply the world with food are feasible or ecologically wise ideas.

1. (a) S Fallon and M Enig. Nourishing Traditions, (New Trends Publishing; Washington, D.C.), 2000, 5; (b) Breeds of Livestock. Oklahoma State University, Department of Animal Science.

2. Breeds of Livestock. Oklahoma State University, Department of Animal Science.

3. W Bender and M Smith. Population, Food, and Nutrition. Population Reference Bureau;1997.

4. B Carnell. Could vegetarianism prevent world hunger?. Accessed on January 3, 2002.

5. M Purdey. The Vegan Ecological Wasteland. Journal of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation [hereafter referred to as Jnl of PPNF], Winter 1998.

6. Ibid.

7. R Audette with T Gilchrist. Neanderthin. (St. Martins; NY), 1999, 200-2.

8. S Fallon and M Enig, Nourishing Traditions, 6.

9. M Purdey, op cit.

10. Ibid.

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