Soy Story: The Politics Behind the Boneless Protein
By Britt Bailey
The soybean has had a glorified past. Known in ancient Asia as
the "Yellow Jewel," "Brings Happiness," and "Heaven's
Bird," the soybean was the cherished "boneless protein" for
Buddhist monks and religious sects who customarily avoided animal products
in their diets. For centuries, its potent ingredients remained a mystery.
Though soy did not land on "Western" dinner plates until nearly
the end of the twentieth century, the bean has served as an icon for
a counterculture of back-to-the-land types stepping away from post WWII
meat and potatoes dinner. But not everyone initially sees soy as a food,
much less a drug. Chances are if you mention the word "tofu" to
a cattle rancher living in the Midwest, he'll say that's the "cardboard
those hippies eat." For others, perhaps those hippies, making and/or
eating a block of tofu symbolizes an ideal of treading lightly on the land.
This fact is told by the romanticized names on some soy product packaging,
"Wildwood," "Living Farms," and "Country Life."
Soy Goes Mainstream
Now, the little "Yellow Jewel," of the ancient Buddhist monks,
has become big business. Of the principle food crops grown in the United
States in the last half of the twentieth century, soybean production has increased
the most. In fact, production has doubled in the last ten years alone.
Nearly 3 billion bushels of soybeans were produced in 1997 compared with 1.5
billion bushels produced in 1987. More than 63 percent of the
world's soybeans originate in the United States. Ironically, the U.S.
now provides Japan with 80% of its soy and is the US's largest single
country customer. Europe continues to be the largest region to import
whole soybeans from the United States market.
While soy production is growing, so is talk of its purported benefits.
Everywhere you turn it seems the media is touting soybeans and their derivatives.
The powers that be, namely Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland
are betting their future on soy.
Back in the wings, a growing number of scientists are quietly expressing
concerns over soy's hidden risks. It is, after all, a plant-borne hormone.
And as history has shown , adding hormones to the body is fraught with danger.
The sorry tale of DES is but one example. As example of the hidden downside
to hormones, high-dose estrogens users who blithely took the first generation
of contraceptives experienced cramping, and a rash of estrogen-induced liver
tumors that were hidden from the medical profession and the public alike.
It is entirely possible that comparable risks will be exponentially
magnified as soy protein production shifts into high gear and people ingest
more and more of the refined, plant-hormone based extracts. Companies
are aggressively attempting to add soy's concentrated hormone-containing "protein
isolate" under the guise of providing added nutrition to crackers, sport
bars, cereals, and infant formulas. Here is how one company has done it.
Spotlight on DuPont
DuPont Company has been quietly standing by as Monsanto Company gets the flack
for introducing genetically altered soybeans developed for herbicide sprays.
In turn, Monsanto has suffered the brunt of consumers "yuk"
factor. Dupont's 1998 Annual Report proudly states:
"New product development projects are principally
aimed at significantly improving the functionality, color, taste, and flavor
of soy protein isolate for use as a food ingredient in cheese, coffee whiteners,
milk, egg and meat alternatives, baking products, and nutritional/ sport
But since 1998, standing idly by has been far from DuPont's strategy.
In March 1999, they completed the purchase of Pioneer Hybrid for $7.7 billion
allowing DuPont to be a major player in agricultural biotechnology.
Heeled with PioneerŐs multitude of corn and soybean seed varieties, DuPont
has now formed a partnership company called Optimum Quality Grains (OQC).
Optimum Quality Grains is set to provide consumers with the second wave of
bioengineered goodies such as "high sucrose soybeans," "high
oleic soybeans," and "Optimum® Low Saturate Soybeans."
In addition, DuPont has also quietly purchased the largest soy protein isolate
company in the world, Protein Technologies International (PTI). Once
owned by Ralston Purina Company, PTI provided added soy protein supplements
to animal feeds. Now in the hands of DuPont, PTI is expanding
its capabilities and providing soy isolate for sport drinks, healthy protein
bars, and other "healthy" products. While Dupont is an odd
actor to be added to the soy world, it is not the only company jumping onto
the bean's bandwagon. Archer Daniels Midland has trademarked their "Novasoy"
brand of isolate rich in two major isoflavones, genistein and daidzein.
What is Soy Isolate?
Soy isolate is the most concentrated source of soy protein. It is manufactured
by a water extraction process from defatted and dehulled soybeans while retaining
soy's natural isoflavones, or phytoestrogens. Soy isolate then can serve to
be added as a "functional" ingredient in many familiar products.
PTI has registered its soy isolate known as Supro®, and is adding it to
baked products, beverages, and extruded snack bars, such as "GeniSoy"
The Benefits of Soy
If the abundance of phytoestrogen-enriched foods in health-food shops and
supermarkets is anything to go by, the public is already being convinced of
the health benefits of weakly estrogenic, plant-derived steroids. Enthusiasts
promote plant estrogens as the natural alternative to hormone replacement
therapy (HRT), But, for post-menopausal women, as with other "food therapies,"
public acceptance has raced ahead of medical consensus. Post-menopausal
women have been eating soy in droves, while new evidence suggests cancers
which are estrogen dependent may actually be stimulated by additional dietary
The medical establishment began extensively researching the risks and benefits
of soy and its accompanying isoflavones in the early 1990s. Nearly 300
scientific papers were published in 1994, alone. In the latter quarter
of 1998, over 100 articles appeared in the National Library of Medicine.
Often cautiously worded scientifically based research papers are used to tout
soy's ability to lower the risk of heart disease, reduce the uncomfortable
symptoms associated with menopause (i.e. hot flashes), protect against the
weakening of bones known as osteoporosis, and potentially protect against
breast and prostate cancer. While such benefits may be garnered from
judicious use of soy, even the slightest miscalculation can send the body
into a dangerous hormone tail spin. For it is the nature of hormones,
and estrogen ion particular, to be a double-edged sword.
The purported benefits of soy allegedly stem from the presence of chemicals
in the plant known as phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens. There are
three major classes of phytoestrogens, namely coumestrans, lignans, and isoflavones.
Most medical researchers focus on the isoflavones in soy as their raison d'être.
The two most biologically active isoflavones, genistein and daidzein are now
in the spotlight. Each has powerful hormone-like effects.
Each can bind with so-called estrogen like receptors. And, in our view,
each brings risks as well as benefits to any user.
Once again companies at the helm of its products and public acceptance may
be leaping ahead of medical consensus. While companies have assured
consumers that the trypsin inhibitors and phytates, two elements of soy which
could be detrimental to human health, have been properly removed from soy
isolates, they have said little about the levels of estrogen circulating
in the body after ingesting what may seem to be a "healthy" tofu
burger, glass of soymilk, and a sport bar loaded with isolate. These
hormone levels may be extraordinarily high. A child ingesting soy-based
formula may receive 13-22,000 times the normal plasma estrogens she would
get from being breast fed. There does not seem to be a consensus on
the "recommended daily allowance," if any, of soy's estrogenic
While the Food and Drug Administration's policy arm concerning food, the
Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, is not regulating soy's phytoestrogens
and has not conducted any safety studies of ingestion of soy, there is at
least one person in the FDA concerned about the aggressive marketing of soy
and its concentrated isolates. Dr. Daniel Sheehan of FDA's National
Center for Toxicological Research says "there is abundant evidence that
some of the isoflavones found in soy, including genistein and equol, a metabolite
of daidzein, demonstrate toxicity in estrogen sensitive tissues and in the
thyroid." He goes onto to say, "genistein is clearly estrogenic,
and it induces estrogenic responses in developing and adult animals and in
While Dr. Sheehan is one of the few voices of concern in government circles,
he is not alone in his thought. A small number of people who are raising questions
about the addition of soy in the diet sans proper knowledge of its estrogenic
effects. To date, there is no consensus of how much additional hormones may
be needed by a post-menopausal woman compared to a menstruating woman versus
an infant, pregnant woman, or an adolescent boy should eat. In fact,
no one knows how much soy is 'good' for you. What evidence exists is
A recent study points out that a pre-menopausal woman eating textured vegetable
protein (TVP) containing 45 mg of isoflavones can lengthen and prolong her
menstrual cycle to nearly 32 days. Possibly such an effect may protect
against breast cancer as the woman will have a lowered exposure to estrogen
over her lifetime. But, there is some reason for concern as well.
For example, it is likely the isoflavones will cross the placental barrier.
As many people may remember, similar transplacental passage of a non-steroidal
estrogen known as diethylstilbestrol in the popular "anti-miscarriage
drug" desPLEX® caused an increase in vaginal cancers in the offspring.
Now a third generation offspring of those children may be experiencing similar
adverse effects. Many of the most respected isoflavone specialists have
been erring on the side of caution with regard to these physiology altering
The benefits of soy may be in doubt. Dr. Kenneth Setchell, a world
renowned phytoestrogen scientist, states precisely, "the clinical data
supporting many of the currently claimed health benefits of phytoestrogens
remain to be established definitively."
Soy is permeating our food chain. Soybean oil constitutes 80% of the
vegetable oil consumed in the United States. Soy lecithin permeates
candies, cookies, and chocolates as an emulsifier. Soy protein isolates
are used in infant formulas and sport protein drinks and bars. Soy has
become so popular companies are literally betting its derivatives will be
worth its weight in gold. Soy derived isolates of genistein and daidzein
are already selling for over $15.00 a gram, while a bushel of soybeans sells
for $1.65 on the commodities market.
If companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and DuPont have their way, our
Frosted Flakes®, Wheat Thins®, and Health Nut® bread will be saturated
with protein isolate from the little "Yellow Jewel." While
it may be not be a bad idea nutritionally, it may be devastating for some
members of the population, particularly young developing children and pregnant
women. Currently the Food and Drug Administration is holding open the
flood gates allowing companies to add the estrogenic material directly to
our foods. As long as the companies claim the material is a "food"
there are no laws which regulate its entrance to our food supply. And,
we as consumers may be the next generations in harms way.