Mainely Tipping Points 45: Part II: How Soy Got Into Our Food Chain

Mainely Tipping Points 45:  December 13, 2012

Part II:  How Soy Got Into Our Food Chain


Part II of this series on Soy explores how soy got into the human food chain.  As established in Part I, the expert I rely on for soy information is Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN, the author of THE WHOLE SOY STORY:  THE DARK SIDE OF AMERICA’S FAVORITE HEALTH FOOD (2005).  Daniel’s credentials show her to be an outstanding nutritionist and her extensive research on soy makes her an expert.  All quotes are from this text. 


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Soy is a powerhouse in terms of the potent chemicals its beans contain.  For instance, soy is one of more than 300 plants that contain phytoestrogens, which stop reproduction.  Yet soy is the only one of these plants humans eat.  Besides phytoestrogens, soy contains many more powerful chemical components which are dangerous for humans unless they can be mediated in some way first.  Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists soy on its Poisonous Plant Database (31).    

 It is true, Daniel writes, that the ancient Chinese “valued the soybean as a national treasure” and honored it with the name “ `the yellow jewel.’ “The soybean, though it is not a grain, is one of the Five Sacred Grains, alongside rice, millet, barley, and wheat.  But, the ancient Chinese did not eat the soybean.  They used it as a green manure to fix nitrogen in the soil (9).

 The Chinese began to eat soybeans “no earlier than about 2500 years ago.”  They fermented soybeans as they “remain toxic after ordinary cooking….”  Fermentation tames the trypsin inhibitor that causes bloating and gas.  Miso paste, used to preserve meat and seafood, and soy sauce, the liquid produced in the production of miso, appeared first.  Natto appeared around 1000 AD, and tempeh appeared “no earlier than the 1600s.”  Thus, “claims that soybeans have been a major part of the Asian diet for more than 3000 years…are simply not true” (9-10). 

 Soy moved to Japan with the Chinese missionary priests “sometime between 540 and 552 AD.”  Japanese miso documentation first appears in 806 and 938 AD.  Tofu, which is a precipitated product, not a fermented one, appears about the same time and is called “the meat without the bone.”  Tofu “appeared regularly on monastery menus as an aid to spiritual development and sexual abstinence, a dietary strategy validated by recent studies showing that the plant-form of estrogens (called phytoestrogens) in soy can lower testosterone levels” (10-11).

 Tofu consumption spread “throughout China, Korea and Southeast Asia.”  By 700 AD tofu was “accepted as a meat or fish replacement, at least when pork, seafood and other preferred sources were unaffordable or unavailable.”  But, “except in areas of famine, tofu was served as a condiment, consumed in small amounts usually in fish broth, not as a main course.”  In truth, Asians, including the Japanese who eat the most soy, don’t eat more than 1.5 percent of their diets in soy.  And the Japanese, as has been shown in even recent studies, on average eat only about one tablespoon of soy a day (28).  Plus, the types of soy Asians eat are old-fashioned products like miso and tempeh, not commercial soy in products like “soy sausages, soy burgers, chicken-like soy patties, TVP chili, tofu cheesecake, packaged soymilk, or other of the ingenious new soy products that have infiltrated the American marketplace” (12-13).

 Soybeans probably came to Indonesia from trade with southern China trade around 1000 AD.  The Indonesians appear to have invented soy tempeh (fermented whole soy beans) as the “world’s earliest reference to tempeh manufacture occurs in the Serat Centini, a book published in 1815 on the orders of Sunan Sugih, Crown Prince of Central Java.  Indonesian tempeh became “known as food for the poor, even though people of all classes continued to consume it” (13).

 Asians “rarely—if ever—baked or boiled soybeans, ground them into flour, or roasted them to make nut-like snacks.”  Likely, these practices left diners with “a stomach ache or worse,” unlike the time-honored traditional techniques” for preparing soy.  Nor did Asians “press or crush great quantities of soybeans to extract soy oil,” so “they never faced the challenge of finding creative ways to use massive amounts of the leftover protein.”  What oil they did extract was used to light lamps, and the leftover protein “served as an excellent fertilizer” (14)

 Soy goes west as early as 17th century France, where soy sauce becomes a secret ingredient at court banquets.  Ben Franklin sent soybeans to America in 1770, but soy remained “a little-known commodity…for more than a century.”  It wasn’t until 1935 when soybeans were grown for food oil that its plantings “equaled those used for crop rotation”—to fix nitrogen in depleted soils (17).

 Early western soy proponents were John Harvey Kellogg, the breakfast cereal king; Artemy Alexis Horvath, PhD, who promoted soya flour in academic and popular fronts; Henry Ford, who thought soy plastics would be great in cars and who wore soybean-fiber ties to promote soy as a cloth; Adolf Hitler, who promoted whole-food vegetarianism; and Benito Mussolini, who wanted to make soy flour a “mandatory ingredient in the Italian staple polenta.”  By the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union” pushed soy protein and soy margarines as the solution to low-cost feeding of the masses…” (18-20).

 The U.S. soy industry has claimed that Asians, especially the Japanese, eat a lot of soy and have better heart health and fewer cancers that do North Americans.  But, as noted above, soy proponents in the west have had to admit that soy consumption in Asia is not as great as they advertised.  Further, the famous claims that Okinawans enjoy longevity due to soy-rich vegan diets have been debunked, and Daniel covers this issue thoroughly.  As with other Asians, Okinawans do eat small amounts of soy, but their diets include primarily meat, fish, and lard.  There seems also to be a genetic factor involved in Okinawan longevity (15-16).  And, as Sally Fallon Morell of The Weston A. Price Foundation notes in the introduction, the Japanese, who eat the most soy in Asia, and Asians in general, have higher rates of cancer of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, and liver than do North Americans (5). 

 What differs between how soy is viewed in the East and the West is that in the West soy “is a product of the industrial revolution—an opportunity for technologists to develop cheap meat substitutes, to find clever new ways to hide soy in familiar food products, to formulate soy-based pharmaceuticals, and to develop a plant-based, renewable resource that could replace petroleum-based plastics and fuels.”  Even today, “very few soybeans are sold for whole food products,” so that “the `good old soys’ of Asia—miso, tempeh and natto—thrive only in niche markets.”  The soy industry knows that “the big profits are not to be found in old-fashioned, funny-tasting foreign foods, but from splitting the `yellow jewel’ into two golden commodities—oil and protein” (21-22).

 Most soybean oil (97 percent in 1997), which is highly processed, goes into food products—salad and cooking oils, shortening, and margarine.  The protein was at first fed to “animals, poultry and, more recently, fish farms.”  But now, the soy industry “aggressively markets soy protein as a people feed as well”—so that “soy is now an ingredient in nearly every food sold at supermarkets and health food stores.”  And, the soy industry profits from soy waste products, like soy lecithin (used as an emulsifier), “protease inhibitors (digestive distressers sold as cancer preventatives), and isoflavones (plant estrogens promoted as `safe’ hormone therapy, cholesterol reducers, and cancer cures”) (21-23). 

 The soy industry has “Americanized soy around the globe”—running into trouble “only when Monsanto—the biotech bully boy”—pushed for acceptance of its genetically modified (GM) `Frankenstein’ soybeans” (27).  China is “now the world’s largest importer of U.S. soybeans” (30).  And, Asia is potentially a “huge market” for American-style imitation soy products (28).

 Next:  the difference between American industrial soy products and the old-fashioned “good old soys.”