Saturday, December 10, 2011

Soy: It Isn’t So -- Big industry peddling a myth?

Once upon a time there was a lowly bean. Unlike other beans, in its natural state it was highly toxic to people and animals. Poor people in Asia discovered somehow — no doubt through desperate trial-and-error — that when fermented, the soy bean was edible. It became part of their diet. In the late 20th Century, when the industrialized diet of the West was afflicting its people with heart disease, cancers and diabetes, it was noticed that the spare Asian diet of fish, rice and a little fermented soy bean was not making people sick. Thus began one of the largest and most successful food cons ever perpetrated.

It’s the kind of silly syllogism that industry has used to make money over and over again: Asians eat soy; Asians are healthy; therefore eating soy is healthy. You might as well argue that surgically altering your eyes, or staining your skin, would give you the health of a hard-working Asian.

But when industry invests hundreds of millions of dollars in repeating a stupid statement on television, and hires scientists to inquire into its validity, and then hires actors in white lab coats to explain that the scientists agreed with the stupid statement, then instead of the ridicule the statement deserves you end up with FDA approval (it came in in 1999) of the following food label: “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Yes, the soybean industry, now worth about $4 billion a year in the United States alone, now responsible for much of the forest and topsoil destruction proceeding apace around the world, hired the scientists who did the study that said soy “may reduce the risk” of heart disease. Say those words fast enough, often enough, and they sound just like “prevents” or even “cures.” Thus does $4 billion become $8 billion, and $16 billion, and so on.

It is not the case that industry brought the soy that Asians were consuming — small portions of fermented soy such as miso, natto and tempeh, with a little tofu — to market in the rest of the world. Instead, the food engineers deconstructed the bean into ingredients: oil (now the base of most vegetable oils sold), lecithin, the waste from the oil manufacture (used as an emulsifier), soy flour and various soy-protein “isolates” (originally developed to make cardboard) used as mixes for various drinks that are advertised as health- promoting. more