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Soy Foods: Hidden Sources, Health and Environmental Impact

 

Soy foods are a sensitive topic to some and throughout the years, I have tried to share the best of my knowledge about soy foods so you can make an informed decision about it. I avoid soy as much as possible, not because soy – when consumed in the optimal forms (more on that below) – is a bad choice, but rather the source of soy and how it's transformed and hiding in so many unexpected places. Are soy foods good for us and can they be part of a healthy diet?

Soy Foods: Health Impacts

Allergies

Soy is a top allergen in Canada and the US, especially for children. Many kids outgrow their soy allergies, but not all do. There are also many adults who don't have a full-blown soy allergy, but are intolerant to it.

Hormone Imbalance

Soy products have a phytoestrogenic effect, which means they mimic our own production of estrogen in the body. Though many studies show this effect can actually help prevent cancer, other evidence (and many women) cite that soy creates all kinds of hormonal issues relating to thyroid issues and severe hormonal imbalance.

Soy is an abundant source of phytoestrogens and is certainly a contributing factor because it is so ubiquitous (more on that below). You can read up on phytoestrogens here.

Digestion

As a legume, soybeans can be difficult for some of us to digest. They contain enzyme inhibitors that impair our ability to absorb certain minerals like zinc, calcium and magnesium, and can impact protein digestion.

Healthwashed Soy

I've written about healthwashing numerous times and soy is a heavily healthwashed product. Let's face it, most processed soy foods aren’t using organic, non-GMO soy as the source. Soy foods such as faux sausage, turkey, hot dogs and bacon are often splashed with lofty health claims but they are usually not healthy. Often, these soy foods are junk disguised as a healthy option – they are heavily processed, contain other potentially harmful ingredients like gluten, unhealthy oils, excess salt, excess or added sugar, natural flavours and preservatives.

soy foods and the environment

soy foods

There’s no question that breeding animals for food, wastes an enormous amount of natural resources and pollutes our air and waterways, and sacrifices lives. A mainly plant-based diet is far gentler on the earth.

But is soy consumption the answer to healing the planet?

Genetic Modification

Genetically modified foods like soy have a detrimental impact on the environment. They threaten biodiversity and create pollution that destroys waterways, land and wildlife. They also contribute to deforestation, as land is converted to plant more soy crops.

Unfortunately, many soy products on the market have been genetically modified. In the United States, an astounding 94% of soy crops are genetically engineered. Here in Canada, soybeans are a growing biz, too. Last year, we grew over 7.7 million metric tons of soy, mostly in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. The amount of genetically modified soy planted in Canada has been growing during the last few years – in 2019 farmers planted 2.3 million acres worth, up from 1.84 million in 2015.

So what does all this mean? It means we can’t recognize genetically modified soy as actual food, so our bodies don’t know how to digest, absorb and use it as fuel. GMO foods have also been linked to numerous health issues, including allergies, liver problems, infertility and sterility, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, kidney stones and more.

You can get the full lowdown on GMOs here for more information.

Energy Consumption

What about the energy used to transport processed foods all over the world, and all the wasteful packaging that goes along with it? I've certainly never seen a veggie dog that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic and cardboard. Vegan, plant-based foods like dairy-free milk, ice cream, meat alternatives, and egg substitutes have become big business. In the US alone, vegan food sales reached 3.1 billion in 2018. Of course, not all of those products are soy. However, they are going to come in a package. I'm all for eating plant-based, but better to pursue more zero waste options like fresh fruit and veggies and products you can purchase in bulk with your own plastic-free containers.

Not all soy grown is designated for human consumption, either. It's also diverted to paint, plastics, polyurethane foam, cosmetics, personal care products, detergents and candles, all of which can seep into our environment and pollute it.

Conventionally grown soy can leach pesticides and herbicides into the ground and waterways, damaging the soil and the people who are exposed to these toxins.

Soy Foods Vs. Meat: Which Is Healthier?

There are some people who maintain that soy foods are better for our health and the health of the environment, and are the preferred option to animal products. This is not something I agree with. Both soy foods and animal products have the capacity to be unhealthy. Factory-farmed meat is detrimental to our health, for sure, which I've written about in more detail here. Yet mass-produced GMO soy, shaped into bacon and turkey, is a harmful Frankenfood. And I would argue it's no better for you than hormone-ridden meat.

Organic or fermented soy, along with organic, grass-fed, pastured meat/poultry and wild fish, both have their health benefits if you choose to eat them.

The Ethics of Soy

Let's be clear: factory farms that cage helpless animals, abuse them and pump them full of hormones and antibiotics are unequivocally inhumane and unethical. I understand that those that abide by the vegan lifestyle, for the most, do not ever allow for an exception to the belief that eating animals is wrong.  I fully understand where you are coming from.

That also doesn't make it ethical or sustainable for our planet to be using hectares of arable land to plant soy that produces Frankenfoods, animal feed, or plastic when that land could be planted with wholesome fruits and vegetables that are edible off the land.

Is it fair to feed animals processed and genetically modified soy feed, which is definitely not part of their natural diet, but which they receive because it's cheap and easy to grow – and massively subsidized by governments?

Is it ethical to give our children processed soy foods that have as many synthetic ingredients, preservatives and toxins as their meaty counterparts?

When we choose to consume products like tofu turkey or veggie dogs, we are contributing to the demand for fake soy foods that are detrimental to human health, animal health and the planet.

And that doesn’t sound ethical at all.

Hidden Sources of Soy

Soybean oil

If you're pan-frying a block of tofu or buying a carton of soy milk, you know that you're consuming soy. The trouble is, there are many hidden sources of soy that contribute to excessive soy exposure in North America and in Europe, where consumers, directly and indirectly, consume 61kg of soy per year. Soy has infiltrated nearly every processed food on the shelf.

Food and products that contain or often contain soy:

  • Bean sprouts
  • Bread crumbs, cereals and crackers
  • Breaded foods
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), hydrolyzed soy protein (HSP) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Imitation dairy foods
  • Infant formula, follow-up formula, nutrition supplements for toddlers and children
  • Meal replacements
  • Meat products with fillers, for example, burgers and prepared ground meat products, hot dogs, cold cuts
  • Miso
  • Tofu
  • Soy nuts
  • Soy milk
  • Tempeh
  • Nutrition supplements
  • Bean curd
  • Natto
  • Okara
  • Sauces, for example, soy sauce, shoyu, tamari, teriyaki, Worcestershire
  • Simulated fish and meat products, for example, fake crab, imitation bacon bits, vegetarian burgers
  • Gravies, sauces and marinades
  • Vegetarian dishes

Other possible sources of soy:

  • Baked goods and baking mixes
  • Beverage mixes, for example, hot chocolate and lemonade
  • Canned tuna and minced hams, for example, seasoned or mixed with other ingredients for flavour
  • Chewing gum
  • Cooking spray, margarine, vegetable shortening and vegetable oil
  • Potato chips
  • Frozen desserts
  • Lecithin
  • Milled corn
  • Meat products with fillers, for example, pre-prepared hamburger patties, hotdogs and cold cuts
  • Seafood-based products and fish
  • Seasoning and spices
  • Snack foods
  • Soups, broths, soup mixes and stocks
  • Soy pasta
  • Spreads, dips, mayonnaise and peanut butter
  • Thickening agents
  • Mono-diglyceride
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) (may contain hydrolyzed protein)

If you're trying to avoid soy in packaged foods, your best bet is to check the ingredients list on food labels.

Why we mostly hate soy & Hidden food sources of soy

Beneficial Soy Foods

Wait – soy isn't all bad. There are a couple of kinds of soy that I feel confident eating on the rare occasion and in moderation. These products are available; organic, non-GMO and fermented or sprouted, which are chock full of probiotics, enzymes, vitamins, minerals and protein. These include:

  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Miso
  • Gluten-Free Tamari
  • Edamame
  • Whole, cooked soybeans

But here’s the thing - we don’t eat them every day at every meal. We eat them occasionally, and never in the shape of pepperoni or a turkey.

If you’re against meat for health, environmental and ethical reasons, then why eat a faux soy product that’s meant to mimic its taste and appearance? If you are all about eating plant-based foods then go for it - but don't go making soy the hero. You can be vegetarian and vegan easily, deliciously and happily without relying on soy foods as a filler or transitional food.

Soy can definitely be part of a healthy, balanced vegetarian, vegan or omnivorous diet, but should it be consumed daily? Definitely not. Unless we actively seek out soy-free foods, there is no way to avoid them – and I do believe we are generally consuming way too much of it.

How To Use Beneficial Soy Foods

miso-tempeh-soup-recipe

Tempeh

Miso

Tofu

41 Responses to “Soy Foods: Hidden Sources, Health and Environmental Impact”

  1. Why We (Mostly) Hate Soy: It seems like people are a lil’ bit sensitive about their soy products, which we disco... http://t.co/v3RTSzSM
  2. andrea said…
    i love that you wrote about this. i call all of this "food" vegan junk food! i feel the longer you are meat free the less you crave the taste and smell of these products. its amazing how marketing can blind side us into the belief that soy is healthy. people are now putting their babies on soy formulas.....do you think that's as scary as i do? love your articles! peace & light
  3. Melanie said…
    Hmmm, I think you should have done some photoshop work to that photo before posting about the horror of GMO soy and specifically mentioning Tofurkey. Right on their display case in clear view reads ("Certified Non-GMO, Organic Soy). Yes I totally agree with you on many levels about the nastiness of fake soy products, but they are an excellent alternative to those just coming out of a meat eating lifestyle and making the transition to vegetarianism. When my husband and I first made the change, fake soy foods were part of our regular diet and we consumed them regularly because we honestly weren't sure what else to eat, but as the years went by and we learned more about healthy eating and consuming mostly whole plant foods, we have soy only on a very rare occasion now. So while I think your article raises a ton of crucial points and I love your blog and insight, I still think that eating a soy based veggie burger is WAY better for our health, the animals and the earth than eating a fast food beef burger.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      Definitely. The message which I hope was communicated was that just because it's vegan / made of soy- doesn't necessarily make it a great choice. As I've said many times before- just because something is healthier than something else, doesn't make it healthy.
      • Erin said…
        That's not the message I got at all. You specifically say, "Some peeps believe that eating fakin’ bacon is a better choice for personal health, the environment and animal rights. We don't agree..." But it IS better. It may not be best, but it most certainly is better than the animal versions of those same products.
  4. Is soy really an ethical choice? http://t.co/Y2bStBGZ via @sondibruner @MeghanInc
  5. Erin said…
    First, you need to stop using Tofurkey as an example. As has been pointed out several times, they DO NOT USE genetically engineered foods. See here: http://www.tofurky.com/ourstory/ingred_gmos.html. Second, while it's true that mega-farms producing GMO soy is bad for the environment, most of that soy is not going to feed humans, it's going to feed animals. "Livestock and poultry consume more than 70 percent of the soybeans worldwide," according to this United Soybean article: http://www.unitedsoybean.org/topics/animal-ag/u-s-soy-farmers-poised-for-growth-in-global-animal-feed-industry/. I've seen even higher estimates elsewhere. So it's the demand for animal products, not Tofurkey, that fuels soy production. Go vegan, and that will drop dramatically.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      Done. Changed the photo.
    • June Li said…
      I think Tofurkey is a perfect example of 'healthwashing'. It splashes "non-GMO" organic all over it- but that only refers to the actual soy in the product. Do you really think there is no amount of processing/artificial additives that goes into making a bean look like a deli slice? I have been a vegan for the last 15 years- and I would never touch the stuff. I have never understood why this garbage is essential for "making a transition" as some people say. Fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans and legumes helped ME make the transition. My mother always told me to stay away from things just like Tofurkey. We use tempeh in my native cuisine but she would never, ever use something that had been processed to look like faux meat. Ick. What exactly is "vegan natural flavouring" anyway? Or "natural smoke flavour"? Those are both ingredients listed in Tofurkey products and it makes me ill to even consider putting those things into my body.
  6. Brighde said…
    Hi, I think we need to remember that tofu, tempeh, soy milk and edamame (soy products in their nearly unprocessed state) are just beans. Like chickpeas, kidney beans they are healthy part of a wide varied diet. It's not the beans' fault that people have stuffed around with its genes like so many other crops. While I agree we should avoid processed soy products that have manipulated in a chemistry lab like so many other things, I think this article exaggerates the negatives without going in to any of the positives. From reading this article I see no reason why I should ever eat any soy, even the ones you say are ok. There are many thousands of peer-reviewed articles that state that soy has many beneficial impacts on our bodies compared with a hugely reduced number of studies that have shown negative impacts.
  7. Erica said…
    I would never claim that processed soy fake meats are the healthiest choice out there, but I do believe they are a better choice than, say, the cheapest deli meats and hot dogs full of nitrites. My only point in response to the initial post was that Tofurky products ARE apparently made from organic, non-GMO soy, and that there are many, many other companies making far worse products and going to greater lengths to health wash them. Of all the companies and products to vilify, this would not be the first one I would choose, is all. Secondly, your choice of reference for evidence about the health risks of GMO foods is Dr. Merkola, who bases little of his claims on scientific research. I am happy to read anything you can provide that is actually based on peer-reviewed data, but Merkola is not a reliable resource. Do you have any other evidence?
  8. The great #soy debate! Where do you stand? http://t.co/rqqbgduD
  9. Anita Alvarez said…
    I think it's valuable to point out that soy (and soy products) often help people make a transition out of an animal-based diet. But I agree that quality soy products should be *part* of a balanced plant diet. I read in The China Study, too, that if young girls eat soy regularly (I forget how often) before the age of 16, that soy helps to protect them from breast cancer. But, again, you can't take this factoid in isolation. The populations in this study also ate a really healthy, plant-based diet, light on animal products. Wondering if you have thoughts on this, Meghan.
  10. I generally avoid soy for a giant handful of reasons. RT @MeghanInc: The great #soy debate! Where do you stand? http://t.co/ibsRLRij

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