Today I’m addressing soy. It’s unbelievably common, massively in demand and certainly a part of my diet. But it’s controversial and there’s wide concern over the implications of consuming this plant on such a large scale.
Soy beans are legumes native to East Asia. Process them in various ways and you’ve got everything from protein-rich tofu to dairy-free milk, emulsifier soy lecithin to flavour-enhancing soy sauce.
There are more than this, but below I’ve listed the two main concerns that we seem to have regarding the consumption of soy.
- Rapid Deforestation to keep up with global demand
- Phytoestrogens in the body
Deforestation & Demand
There is a huge global demand for soy products. Firstly, there is the Asian market who have always used soy – particularly in place of dairy for many who are lactose-intolerant. Next up there is the increasing demand for plant-based or vegan alternatives to traditional protein sources. Next there’s soy used in candles, adhesives and other industrial practices. Then, as an emulsifying agent in various processed snacks. But finally, overtaking them all as the number one demand for soy is as an animal feed.
Each year, large areas of South America and Asia are cleared of native rainforest to make way for soy (and palm) plantations. This happens in much the same way as these areas are cleared to make room for livestock. The two go hand in hand, with the soy being grown and harvested to feed the livestock. In lands where the grass doesn’t flourish, but food is needed to plump up the cattle, soy is the alternative feed. And much of the time the soy has been genetically-modified to be herbicide resistant.
A great argument for plant-based or vegan living is that you’re missing out the middle man. I completely agree with that. It’s much better to be eating the soy bean than eating the cow that’s eaten the soy bean. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t cause so much deforestation. We wouldn’t need the land for the livestock, so you can forget that. We’d only need to be cultivating soy for human consumption.
When I worked in skincare, I had a client once who approached me very concerned about finding a product that didn’t contain soy. She explained to me that she had miraculously overcome a battle with breast cancer and her doctor instructed she be sure to avoid soy. She explained how soy is a phytoestrogen (a hormone not produced by the body, but rather ingested). Her doctor had informed her that some studies had shown the consumption of soy (and other phytoestrogens) could increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
This was the first time that I had heard of such a thing. I did my research that night and have read much on the subject since then, but the studies seem inconclusive. There’s about the same level of evidence as studies on parabens. There’s no concrete evidence that eating soy will make you more likely to develop cancer. At least not that I’ve found.
Try as I might, the carnivorous males in my life still moan at me when I prepare tofu. They exclaim with flailing arms that they don’t want to grow boobs. Based on the research I’ve done, I can’t see my weekly soy intake as being a problem at all. But I am mindful where I purchase my soy from. I have a responsibility to make ethical purchases, after all.
What can you do to eat soy sustainably?
- Avoid GMO. A quick search on the websites of Cauldron and Alpro – two large soy retailers here in the UK list commitments to staying GMO-free. So thumbs up from me on that one.
- If you eat meat, buy local and grass-fed to reduce your potential GMO soy demand.
- Reduce the number of processed foods you’re eating – especially those that contain soy. Eating whole foods is better for so many reasons, but this is a good one for sure.