So in the end, is soy good or bad for me ?

A few weeks ago we talked about the damage that palm tree oil consumption and production is causing to the environment. We offered you a few alternatives and today, to celebrate Sustainable Gastronomy Day, we want to do the same thing with a widely known, and internationally commercialised ingredient you might have heard of: soy. Two decades ago, soy was still a big mystery to everyone in the Western hemisphere. We knew it was mainly consumed in Asian countries and a few yoguis swore by it. Today, it’s everywhere: from an entire shelf dedicated to it at the supermarket to yet another ingredient in an endless list on the back of a package, that usually comes under the name of “soy lecithin”. But we’ll get to that part later.

So why do we want to talk about it on this particular day? Why does it generate so much confusion? Let’s dive deep into its origins. 

The soy boom

Between 1995 and 1997, the production of soy had a rapid growth and went up to 300% in Argentina, Brasil and Paraguay, which are the countries that represent 96,6% of the total production in Latin America, and the whole world for that matter. But the soy boom didn’t come from nowhere. Before its big moment, soy had already undergone its ups and downs. Straight after becoming a product of widespread distribution and consumption in the 50s and 60s, the industry faced some issues following some allegations that said soy was bad for human health. By the 70s and 80s, the soybean industry had already been deeply affected by these accusations that claimed that soybean oil consumption lowered immunity, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and caused cancer.

As a crisis management strategy, the soybean industry decided to blatantly blame its competitors. The narrative was that ‘saturated fats are bad’, and so they set a multi-million dollar campaign behind to support it. People started to be swayed against saturated fats and the tropical oils they had been using, restaurants and food manufacturers began removing these fats from their foods, and tropical oil and saturated fat consumption plummeted while soybean oil sales skyrocketed.

In the 80s, people didn’t have the access to the vast information we do today, so it became quite easy for the soybean industry to sell hydrogenated soybean oil as vegetable oil, even though hydrogenated soybean oil contains toxic trans fatty acids and is far more damaging to the heart than any other fat.

Thankfully, with the growing awareness of the dangers of trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils, tropical oils eventually made their return.

More theories

However, according this Small Footprint Family article, the soybean industry still has a plan in place to this day. “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, soy milk, “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”. If you’re interested in the subject, we encourage you to form your own opinion – there’s a lot of information out there and many different angles!

An unparalleled growth

Even though it had been estimated that the soybean industry would most likely suffer a deceleration in the next decade, the truth is that it hasn’t really stopped growing and doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon. Just so that you get an idea: in 1996, the global soybean production stood at 130 million tons, then went up to 270 in 2012, and it is estimated that by 2050 it’ll go up to 515 million tons (Gatronomía & Cia). The reason being that Europe still relies on soy imports to feed livestock and to manufacture products (generally vegetarian). 

And how is it possible to produce that much soy?

Making space by deforesting the Amazonian forest, destroying habitat for wildlife (including endangered or unknown species), increasing greenhouse gases, using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides – which in turn end up contaminating the forest, poisoning rivers, destroying wildlife, causing birth defects in humans and disrupting the life of indigenous tribes who depend on the forest for food and shelter.

In the last few years, people have tried to pressure the governments and the institutions in charge to protect the Earth’s lungs, but just as the pressure has relaxed, soy production has been moved to the Brazilian Cerrado, a vast 2 square km tropical savanna ecoregion in Brazil that holds 5% of the worlds biodiversity. No matter the pressure, Brazil keeps on being the number one supplier of soy in the world, year after year.

And what does Europe have to do with anything?

The problem with this massive soy production is that there’s no legal requisite for companies to state the geographical origin of soy or any proof that it’s been produced legally without causing any environmental or human damage, as it is required with palm oil. The majority of European companies display an intentional ignorance when it comes to the purchase of soy coming from Argentina or Paraguay (countries that also have a big deforestation problem).

Yes to soy, but in smaller quantities

The use of soy is very common in Asia, but it’s not as frequent as we think it is. As a matter of fact, 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. How many people do you know that could easily tell you they’ve drank a glass of soy mil, eaten a soy veggie burger and had an energetic soy bar all in one day? It’s #healthy, yes, but is it actually?

There are a number of articles across the web regarding the topic of soy consumption: we have the ones that rave about its benefits, then there are the ones that are focused on debunking myths around it, and finally the ones that only talk about its negative effects. The consensus however seems to be that soy is not as bad as some people have made us believe it is, but it shouldn’t be considered a superfood either. What we do know is that the production of soy is harmful to the environment and that we should reduce our consumption simply for that reason.

But what happens with the ‘invisible soy’? The one that comes under names such as ‘soy lecithin’? First, let’s talk about what it is exactly and see if it’s bad or not.

Soy lecithin

Soy lecithin is not a food or a product per se: it’s a dietary byproduct. Lecithin is a food additive that comes from several sources — one of them being soy. It’s generally used as an emulsifier, or lubricant when added to food, but also has uses as an antioxidant and flavor protector (Healhline). 

So it’s not bad then?

The term ‘lecithin’ refers to a mixture of phospholipids (a component of the cell membrane in all plants and animals) and oil. To make soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from the raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane). Then, the crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process, wherein water is mixed thoroughly with the soy oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the oil. Then, the lecithin is dried and occasionally bleached using hydrogen peroxide.

Before the ‘degumming’ step where lecithin is removed, the crude oil undergoes a multi-step process to remove the hexane. That’s where the problem arises. It appears that the FDA doesn’t regulate the amount of hexane residue in food products, and one paper estimated that the residual hexane concentration of soy oil is 500-1000ppm. So, it’s very possible that similar concentrations remain in the soy lecithin. For comparison’s sake, the concentration limit for hexane in pharmaceuticals is 290ppm.

According to one analysis, total pesticide residues in crude soy oil are around 400ppm. Since the pesticide concentration of the oil after degumming is similar, it’s pretty likely that some of those pesticides end up in the lecithin as well.

“While it’s unfortunate that soy lecithin likely contains pesticides and solvents, I would just encourage you to keep this information in perspective. We’re exposed to hundreds of chemical toxins every day in our air, water, household products, and food, and contaminants in soy lecithin will contribute only slightly to your overall toxic load (ChrisKresser.com).

The alternatives

Fava beans

Having said all this, it’s important to remember that soy, despite postulating as a great alternative to animal protein, does have a big impact on our environment. Which is why it’s important to remember the alternatives we have at hand. One of them being plain and simple fava beans.

“Many consumers are crying out for alternatives to soy, a crop that places great strain on the environment. This prompted us to find a method of processing fava beans in such a way that allows us to produce a concentrated protein powder. One of the advantages of fava beans is that they can be grown here, locally in Denmark. This is excellent news for the climate,” explains Iben Lykke Petersen, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science.

Fava beans are better suited for climate considerations because they can be cultivated locally, unlike soybeans, which are primarily grown in the United States and South America — and then exported to Denmark. Moreover, numerous farms in Brazil and Paraguay have cleared large tracts of forest to create space for soybean fields. This has had severely negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and CO2 emissions (ScienceDaily).

Responsible Soy

Another alternative to normal soybeans is responsible soy or RTRS, “a civil organization that promotes responsible production, processing and trading of soy on a global level”. (Our mission is to) “encourage current and future soybean is produced in a responsible manner to reduce social and environmental impacts while maintaining or improving the economic status for the producer through the development, implementation and verification of a global standard, and the commitment of the stakeholders involved in the value chain of soybean” (ResponsibleSoy.org)

Today we celebrate Sustainable Gastronomy Day, a day to remember the impact being informed on the products we consume has on our environment.  Sustainable gastronomy means cuisine that takes into account where the ingredients are from, how the food is grown and how it gets to our markets and eventually to our plates“. (UN

Today we encourage you to be curious about the food you buy and eat. To eat consciously means to never stop learning. So learn, read, ask and start contributing to a change in our planet bite by bite.

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