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Soy - miracle health food or destroyer of the planet?

"Whether you know it or not, you'll probably be eating soya today. It's in 60% of all processed food, from cheese to ice cream, baby formula to biscuits." Felicity Lawrence - The Guardian

Oh dear, I thought I was just going to write a sort of introductory piece on the wonderful world of soy - I mean there are so many soy products aren't there - but pretty soon I was into a mire of industrial horrors; shocking health problems and environmental damage. What I thought was a health food, which I didn't particularly like, but thought was genuine - well it's ancient Chinese isn't it? - turned out to be - well - dangerous.

Well that's how I felt at the end of reading a Guardian article by Felicity Lawrence called Should we worry about soya in our food? And she is not alone - there are plenty of other articles, some of them very learned, out there to support her claims. But just to show that I am not biased there are plenty of others who fully endorse it's health benefits.

I will come back to that, but just a little at first about its origins. I confess that my limited understanding of botany had me thinking that all beans came from central and south America - with the exception of broad beans. It turns out that this is not really true, although it depends at what point you enter the botanical tree. All legumes are in the Family Fabaceae. Below that it gets complicated but I think, as far as soy and all the other beans are concerned, the beans from the Americas - which include green beans, and all those other things like cannellini, pinto beans, kidney beans and so on are from the genus Phaseolus. Soy beans are from the genus glycine, and apparently most of the glycine genus plants are native to Australia, but soy is native to East Asia. Chick peas, lentils, fava/broad beans and peas are from different geni. It's complicated and I don't get far before I become completely lost.

Initially it was grown in China, like a lot of legumes, as green manure. I remember, when learning about the rotation of crops that legumes put nitrogen back into the soil. Note to self - does that mean potatoes are legumes? But then the Chinese learnt to ferment it. These days soy can be divided into three categories - raw, fermented and processed.

In the raw/unfermented category you have things like the beans themselves; soy milk - including infant formula, yoghurt ice-cream and cheese - all the dairy things in fact; edamame beans, which are the young beans; bean sprouts; tofu - which is coagulated soy milk pressed into curds; soy nuts; soy oil and soy flour. I think that according to the scientists these products are less healthy than the fermented ones. But as you can see from this photograph there are very many different varieties of the beans as well. To me they taste revolting. I tried some soy beans many years ago because of their supposed health benefits and I almost threw up. I have never touched them since, and I have to say the memory is something that will ever prevent me from trying other 'fresh' soy products, other than bean sprouts, which are rather nice.

The fermented products are soy sauce; miso; tempeh; some revolting looking fermented beans called natto (see below); and gochujang as well as various other fermented bean pastes.

The hidden soy products though are in virtually everything.

"Soya, crushed, separated and refined into its different parts, can appear on food labels as soya flour, hydrolysed vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, vegetable oil (simple, fully, or partially hydrogenated), plant sterols, or the emulsifier lecithin.

Soya increases the protein content of processed meat products. It replaces them altogether in vegetarian foods. It stops industrial breads shrinking. It makes cakes hold on to their water. It helps manufacturers mix water into oil. Hydrogenated, its oil is used to deep-fry fast food." Felicity Lawrence - The Guardian

And they are the main component in animal feed. This is a huge industry - fuelled by America and now huge in Brazil which is illegally clearing forest to plant vast acres of soy beans. And so it is a major environmental disrupter as well.

The main danger it seems in soy is from the oestrogen that it contains. Initially this was thought to be of help to women passing through menstruation, and also helpful in preventing some types of breast cancer, but now various studies have linked male infertility to soy and in fact for some kinds of breast cancer it's bad news too. Babies that are fed soy based formula instead of milk based ones, will acquire large amounts of oestrogen. Not good.

Now to me it's not a problem - well I thought not until I learnt that in some form or other it's probably in many products I consume. I do like soy sauce, and I also mean to try miso, but the rest is not at all tempting. There's probably a lot more to say, and I have probably not been fair enough to the health food missionaries. Indeed there are some scientists who take their side. The jury really is still out.

I might tackle some of the specific things some time.


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