There's never been a vegetable grown anywhere on earth that suffers from an identity crisis such as the poor, misaligned soybean. If history can be trusted, the soybean has legendary roots of epic proportion. Originating from China, soybeans received special designation in 2853 BC by emperor Sheng-Nung, who considered them to be one of the five sacred plants (rice, wheat, barley, and millet are the others).
The soybean was introduced to many countries several hundred years ago through sea and land trade routes, but is a relatively new crop in the United States. It arrived as ballast aboard a ship in the early 1800’s, was not planted until 1879 (probably somewhere in Northeastern North Carolina), and was only used as livestock forage until George Washington Carver discovered its value as a protein and oil source. Soybean production had its foot in the door earlier, but didn’t become part of America’s farming culture until the 1940’s.
Processed soybeans are the largest source of protein feed and the second largest source of vegetable oil in the world, and the United States is the world’s leading soybean producer and exporter. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the farm value of U.S. soybean production in 2007 / 2008 was $27 billion – the second highest value among U.S. produced crops, trailing only corn.
Soybeans account for approximately 90 percent of total U.S. oil production, with cottonseed, sunflower, canola, and peanuts making up the other 10 percent. But, food-grade oil production is not the soybean industry’s Golden Fleece; that designation belongs to biodiesel soy oil. According to a new study funded by the United Soybean Board (USB), U.S. soybean farmers have received an additional $2.5 billion in net returns over the last four years due to the biodiesel industry’s demand for soybean oil. In essence, the biodiesel industry has raised the bar for soybean prices beyond wildest expectations, and the only challenge to the industry is the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed regulation to limit the use of vegetable oils as fuel.
The Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri says soybean oil will be used for approximately 54 percent of biodiesel produced between 2009 and 2013. An increased demand for soybean oil leads to an increased supply of soybean meal. This byproduct will be used to feed livestock and poultry, as “the swine and dairy industries have had a tough time lately,” says USB Domestic Marketing Chair Lewis Bainbridge. “Every little bit helps in the poultry and livestock industries as far as decreasing their costs. And this demonstrates how biodiesel demand can have a positive impact on this important aspect of our food supply,” Bainbridge continues.
To date, the USB is made up of 68 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. Checkoff funds are invested in the areas of animal utilization, human utilization, industrial utilization, industry relations, market access and supply. According to current marketing information, the checkoff fund assures a soybean farmer $40 worth of services for each dollar spent. Mr. Bainbridge appears to be quite successful in his effort to market the altruistic side of America’s industrial soybean farmers - and their desire to support their livestock brethren - by increasing the amount of soy meal available for livestock feed (which decreases food cost by approximately $19 per bushel). Soybean production and how it relates to public health and safety concerns are not on Bainbridge’s radar screen; he is simply doing his job, and doing it well by industrial standards.
Far removed from their “sacred plant” designation, soybeans were once thought of as a cheap source of protein for the poor – a meat protein alternative for those who couldn’t afford better. However, as Americans continued to search for the Holy Grail of health, soybeans ascended to the throne again, bringing us one step closer to eternal youth – thanks to savvy advertising, bona fide clinical trials, tofu-eating vegetarians, and passionate alternative health advocates.
So, what does all this mean to the American consumer? For years, we’ve heard about the benefits of adding soy to our diets. Our doctors and friends have suggested soy-based foods and supplements as treatment for menopausal hot flashes, bone health, and cancer prevention, and as a replacement for mother’s milk and cow’s milk. How can something as seemingly innocuous as a simple legume cause so much controversy? Why should we be concerned about increased use of soy meal in livestock farming?
The problems with soybeans are both simple and complex; its transformation from a simple legume with an interesting travelogue to a toxic hydrogenated oil with negative public health effects may not carry the same weight, if history repeats itself, as its ability to not only produce biodiesel, but to save the livestock industry from starvation and ruin as well. Some well known medical doctors, including Dr. Mark Hyman of “Ultrametabolism” fame, heralds soy isoflavones (the disease-fighting phytonutrient component of vegetables) as helping to prevent every known chronic disease of modern civilization. However, he also cautions that soy foods have been said to cause thyroid dysfunction in rats. “The take home message: if you are a rat, stay away from tofu,” he says. “Human studies have shown no significant effect when soy is consumed in normal quantities.” Rather cavalier words from a well-respected doctor with a wide following.
The early excitement over the health benefits of soybeans was due, in part, to the discovery that it is the only plant that can be classified as a complete protein; however, it is so low in two of the essential amino acids that it cannot be considered a complete protein for human consumption. This fact has been conveniently ignored in advertising and promotion of the incredible soybean. Moreover, soybeans are high in phytic acid and contain enzyme inhibitors, which can produce serious gastric distress, reduced protein digestion and chronic deficiencies in amino acid uptake. To add insult to injury, carcinogens are formed during processing of soy foods, including the ever popular and highly recommended soy milk.
Concerns regarding the dangers of soy haven’t stopped Unilever food scientists from developing a soy-based egg replacer. This new foodstuff, called Alleggra, was rolled out in the United Kingdom in April 2005. Sites are set on the U.S. market; our egg consumption is ten times greater than the UK’s. Tate and Lyle, the North American distributing company for products such as sucralose (Splenda), fat replacers, and high fructose corn syrup, has partnered with Unilever to mass market this new product. The egg replacer, composed of soy protein, whey protein, vegetable oil (sunflower at press), and egg white, is a GM-free product marketed as “a fully functional replacer of egg,” claiming to have 75 percent less saturated fat than an egg, and ten percent more protein. Food makers that use eggs extensively (bakeries, for example) are being counted on to drive profit margins through the roof.
Gavin Hays, chief executive for Alleggra Foods, says, “Alleggra has clear advantages in terms of cost and health.” He continues: “In terms of food formulations, our ingredient can swing an end product in favor of health. Alleggra is not only cholesterol free but is actively cholesterol lowering.” Apparently, this new egg replacement is important enough to have a corporation named after it.
Despite health claims by those who promote both soy and industrial food industries, there is rising concern over the potential dangers of soy, and the apprehensions
are being passionately discussed by health care professionals of every stripe. Even the American Heart Association (AHA) is back-peddling on its original stance regarding the efficacy and safety of soybeans as a healthy food or supplement choice. In a 2006 science advisory, the AHA accessed several studies on soy protein and isoflavones. The association found that, in the majority of 22 randomized trials, the change in cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels were almost insignificant relative to the large amounts of soy protein that must be consumed to show positive results.
The discovery of unusually high levels of isoflavones in soybeans curried early favor with scientists, researchers, and marketers alike. Isoflavones became a buzzword in the soy and medical industries; food and pharmaceutical companies touted soy isoflavones as the new magic bullet, reducing everything from cholesterol to cancer. However, ADA studies now conclude that soy isoflavones do not effect blood lipid concentrations, and may indeed stimulate cancer cell growth in premenopausal women. Furthermore, soy protein and isoflavones have not been shown to lessen symptoms of menopause (hot flashes, for example), and studies touting soy’s ability to slow postmenopausal bone loss were proven to be inconclusive. The safety and efficacy of soy isoflavones for preventing or treating cancers of the breast, endometrium, and prostate are not established, and a possible adverse affect has been recognized.
The biggest and most insidious challenge we face in the future is not the marketing of fake soy eggs, or soy protein shakes, or soy-based hormone replacement therapies. Our watchdogs must be vigilant with respect to increased levels of soy meal being added to livestock and poultry feeds. Exposing the dangers of this and other hidden ingredients in our food supply are of utmost importance, as the health of our nation – now and in the future – depends on a clean food supply. It seems that soybean farming is in danger of becoming just another monoculture industry without conscience, its sacred roots long forgotten.