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The War on Soy: Why the 'Miracle Food' May Be a Health Risk and Environmental Nightmare

Vegetarians aren't the only ones who should be concerned; there's soy in just about everything you eat these days -- including hamburgers, mac 'n cheese and salad dressing.
 
 
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These days, you can get soy versions of just about any meat -- from hot dogs to buffalo wings. If you're lactose-intolerant you can still enjoy soy ice-cream and soy milk on your cereal. If you're out for a hike and need a quick boost of energy, you can nibble on soy candy bars.

Soy is a lucrative industry. According to Soyfoods Association of North America, from 1992 to 2008, sales of soy foods have increased from $300 million to $4 billion. From sales numbers to medical endorsements, it would seem that soy has reached a kind of miracle food status.

In 2000 the American Heart Association gave soy the thumbs up and the FDA proclaimed: "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease." Over the course of the last decade medical professionals have touted its benefits in fighting not just cardiovascular disease, but cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.

But soy's glory days may be coming to an end. New research is questioning its health benefits and even pointing out some potential risks. Although definitive evidence may be many years down the road, the American Heart Association has quietly withdrawn its support. And some groups are waging an all-out war, warning that soy can lead to certain kinds of cancers, lowered testosterone levels, and early-onset puberty in girls.

Most of the soy eaten today is also genetically modified, which may pose another set of health risks. The environmental implications of soy production, including massive deforestation, increased use of pesticides and threats to water and soil, are providing more fodder for soy's detractors.

All of this has many people wondering if they should even be eating it at all. And you are most likely eating it. Even if you're not a vegetarian or an avid tofu fan, there is a good chance you're still eating soy. Raj Patel, author ofStuffed and Starved, explains that soy is now an ingredient in three-quarters of processed food on the market and just about everything you'd find in a fast food restaurant. It's used as filler in hamburgers, as vegetable oil and an emulsifier. It's in salad dressing, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets.

"Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products," wrote Mary Vance for Terrain Magazine. "It hides in tofu dogs under aliases such as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and lecithin--which is troubling, since the processing required to hydrolyze soy protein into vegetable protein produces excitotoxins such as glutamate (think MSG) and aspartate (a component of aspartame), which cause brain-cell death."

Health Risks or Rewards?

"I grew up in Houston on po' boys and the Wall Street Journal," said Robyn O'Brien. "I trusted our food system." But all that changed when one of her kids developed a food allergy and O'Brien began doing research to find out what's actually in our food and the companies behind it.

Her work led to the book,The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, and she's become an incredible crusader on multiple fronts when it comes to food. She's also been educating consumers about soy's double-edged sword.

To understand why, it helps to know a little history about soy. It's been cultivated, starting in China, for 3,000 years. While Asian diets have generally included soy it has been in small amounts eaten fermented -- primarily via miso, natto and tempeh. "Fermenting soy creates health-promoting probiotics, the good bacteria our bodies need to maintain digestive and overall wellness,"  wrote Vance. "By contrast, in the United States, processed soy food snacks or shakes can contain over 20 grams of nonfermented soy protein in one serving."

It's not that all soy is bad; in fact, eating it in small doses can be quite healthy, if it's fermented. But when it's not, that's where the problems begin. Soy is a legume, which contains high amounts of phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to minerals (like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc), interfering with the body's ability to absorb them (which is usually a bad thing). Soy is also known to contain "antinutrients," among them enzyme inhibitors that interfere with protein digestion. The Chinese figured out about 2,000 years ago that antinutrients and phytic acid could be deactivated during fermentation, but in the processed-food laden land of the West, we've chosen cultural ignorance in favor of quick and cheap. Most of the soy we eat is unfermented.

Another issue with soy is its high amounts of isoflavones, which can be good and bad (hence the double-edged sword). Isoflavones are a powerful antioxidant, writes Robyn O'Brien in her book, that can help boost immunity. They also impact estrogen levels and have been shown to have positive effects on easing symptoms of menopause. "But that plus can also be a minus," writes O'Brien, "because isoflavones' very ability to boost estrogen production can also pose hazards to our health. For example, the FDA scientists point out, during pregnancy, isoflavones could boost estrogen levels even higher, 'which could be a risk factor for abnormal brain and reproductive tract development.'" There is also a risk of breast and other reproductive cancers for women and the potential for testicular cancer and infertility in men.

While there was much news about the American Heart Association endorsing soy in 2000, there was little attention given when the AHA changed its mind and quietly withdrew its pro-soy claims in 2006, O'Brien points out. She also learned that they were not the only ones who expressed concerned about soy. A study in the British medical journal Lancet in 1996 warned of the effects of soy in infant formula. The study found babies had levels of isoflavones that were five to 10 times higher than women taking soy supplements for menopause. The effects in girls could be early-onset puberty, obesity, breast and reproductive cancers. Boys could face testicular cancer, undescended testicles and infertility. Additionally, O'Brien says, a 2003 British study conducted by Gideon Lack of St. Mary's Hospital at Imperial College London followed 14,000 children from the womb through age 6 and found that kids who had been given soy formula as infants seemed almost three times as likely to develop a peanut allergy later on.

As if all this weren't disturbing enough, there's also another reason to be alarmed -- most of the soy we eat is genetically modified to withstand increasing doses of weed-killing herbicides, and really, we have no idea what the long-term affects of that might be. So, what's a person to do? Stay away from soy as much as possible, which also means avoiding processed foods. And, even if we choose not to eat those things, some of us may end up getting them anyway. "There are different sales channels that these companies are using to sell soy with little regard for the cost to people down the road," said O'Brien. "Soy that is not used in grocery stores, in restaurants, or consumed by livestock, is disposed of in school lunch programs, hospitals, and prisons."

One organization, the Weston A. Price Foundation, is actually engaged in a lawsuit on behalf of Illinois state prisoners who say they're eating a diet made of largely soy protein. "In their letters, the prisoners have described deliberate indifference to a myriad of serious health problems caused by the large amounts of soy in the diet," the WAP Foundation writes. "Complaints include chronic and painful constipation alternating with debilitating diarrhea, vomiting after eating, sharp pains in the digestive tract after consuming soy, passing out after soy-based meals, heart palpitations, rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks, depression and symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as low body temperature (feeling cold all the time), brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, frequent infections and an enlarged thyroid gland."

While the soy industry has profited from the widespread adoption of its products here in the United States, other developed countries have taken a more precautionary approach and not allowed soy to become as pervasive in their food supplies in an effort to protect the health of their citizens, says O'Brien. But it's not just people who are at risk. The deleterious effects of soy can start with the seed.

Goodbye Rainforests, Hello Roundup

Glenn Beck recently chastised Al Gore about his meat eating, telling him that if he really cared about the planet he should put down his burger and pick up some Tofurkey. But unfortunately, it's not that simple. Increasing evidence is showing that soy production is also catastrophic for the environment. Just like a beef burger, a soy-based veggie patty may also be leading to deforestation, water depletion, and pesticide pollution. But it's also important to note that the vast majority of soy produced globally isn't used for tofu and veggie sausage -- it's actually used to fatten livestock and create biofuels (so, yeah, you may still want to put down the burger).

"Soy is a really sexy crop; it's fantastic. It's nitrogen fixing, it's full of protein; it's very rich and flexible," Raj Patel said in an interview with New America Media. "The tragedy is that the way we grow it today has turned a blessing into a curse because the way that soy agriculture works is monocultural, which means it takes over large parts of land. In Brazil, that means the Cerrado and the rainforest in the Amazon, and they are draining the water that is beneath that land. There are even some soy and biofuel plantations in Brazil where the International Labor Organization says there are 40,000 slaves working today. Slaves! In Brazil, producing biofuels and soy."

Brazil is one of the leading soy producers in the world, second only to the U.S. and poised to quickly move to the top spot. And overall, the growth of the world market is huge, with global production doubling over the past 20 years and 210 million tons produced a year.

But it has also led to problems. Countries across Latin America, including Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, are experiencing environmental problems similar to Brazil's. Rainforests are cleared, carbon emissions increase, indigenous and small farmers are displaced, aquifers are sucked dry, roads are built through sensitive ecosystems, and heavy pesticide use threatens waterways, soils and the health of locals. And as with all industrial monocultural farming, the rich (Monsanto, Cargill, and Bunge) get richer and the poor get poorer.

"The soy 'gold rush' has attracted fierce competition for land, leading to violence and murder," Marianne Betterly summarized inMariri Magazine. "Hundreds of acres of rainforest are being cleared everyday, often by slave 'debt' laborers, to make room for more soy plantations."

So, we may get our cheap burgers and a deluge of soy-infused foods, but at great cost.

Adding to all these environmental problems with soy is the fact that much of the world's soy (and 85 percent of the U.S crop) is genetically engineered. Since the early '90s farmers in the United States (and now across the world) have been using Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy that is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which is liberally sprayed on the crop to kill weeds.

Much of the promise of GE crops was that they'd lead to the use of less pesticides and herbicides, which threaten both human and environmental health. But that hasn't actually panned out. "Because herbicide-tolerant crops are designed to withstand application of weed killers, farmers can apply large amounts of pesticides without fear of harming their crops. The U.S. has seen more than a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate, or Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, on major crops from 1994 to 2005," Co-Op America reported.

And more damning evidence has just been released. A new study that just came out this week funded by a coalition of non-governmental organizations including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, the Cornerstone Campaign, Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, Greenpeace International and Rural Advancement Fund International USA, found that GE corn, soybean and cotton crops have increased the use of weed-killing herbicides in the U.S. by 383 million pounds from 1996 to 2008.

The study will surely be accompanied by more alarms bells set off by small farmers, environmentalists and organic supporters. And it will be one more battle in the war against soy that's being fought on both health and environmental fronts. Perhaps it will make people think twice before eating soy products, processed food and even most meat.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
 
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