Soy is the phenomenon of the times, the “healthy alternative” to meat, the “non-allergenic” dairy, the “low-cost” protein that will feed the millions, the infant formula that is “better than breastmilk,” the “wonder food” for the New Age. That is what the professors, the commentators, the government officials, the media and, above all, the advertisers have been telling us. This message has fueled the growth of what has become one of the world’s largest industries—soybean production and processing.
Early soy food promotion in America aimed at two specific markets—vegetarians and the poor—soy milk and soy cereals for Seventh Day Adventists, Bac-O-Bits and meat extenders for the budget conscious. But there was a lot of soy to sell and these markets were limited. There was so much to sell because the market for processed foods had experienced explosive growth since the 1950s—and most processed foods contain soy oil. The industry found itself saddled with a waste problem, the leftover sludge from soy-oil manufacture which it could either dump or promote. The exigencies of corporate life naturally chose profit-seeking over disposal and that meant expanding the market, finding more ways to use soy ingredients in processing and convincing more people to pay money for soy-based imitation foods.
“The quickest way to gain product acceptability in the less affluent society,” said a soy-industry spokesperson back in 1975, “. . . is to have the product consumed on its own merit in a more affluent society.” Thus began the campaign to sell soy products to the upscale consumer, not as a cheap poverty food, but as a miracle substance that would prevent heart disease and cancer, whisk away hot flashes, build strong bones and keep us forever young. Soy funds for research enlisted the voices of university professors who haplessly demonized the competition—meat, milk, cheese, butter and eggs.
Garnering the attention of the health-conscious consumer was an important part of the strategy. Glossy magazines like Vegetarian Times, Health and Self transferred the pro-soy message from health food stores infused with the odor of vitamins to upscale markets, and a raft of books by health professionals encouraged avoidance of meat and dairy as the answer to the rising rates of disease caused by imitation foods.
The funds behind the push for soy are enormous—farmers pay a fee for every bushel of soybeans they sell and a portion of every dollar spent on Twinkies, TV dinners and the thousands of other processed foods that contain soy in one form or another, ultimately go towards the promotion of the most highly processed foods of all—imitation meat, milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, candy bars and smoothies made from soy. Even the name of the late Robert Atkins, great defender of beef and butter, has been secunded to the cause. “Low-carb” versions of bread, pastry and pasta—the foods he warned against—are made with high-protein soy.
The push for more soy has been relentless and global in its reach. Soy protein is now found in most supermarket breads. It is being used to transform the humble tortilla, Mexico’s corn-based staple food, into a protein-fortified “super-tortilla” that would “give a nutritional boost to the nearly 20 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty.” Meanwhile, Hindus in India can now buy synthetic dal and lentils made of extruded soy protein. Soybean milk processing plants are sprouting up in places like Kenya. Even China, where soy really is a poverty food and whose people want more meat, not tofu, has opted to build western-style soy factories, rather than put grazing animals on grasslands that cannot be used for growing crops.
Soy meat extenders first showed up in school lunches, although federal law once limited the levels that could be used. The USDA’s NuMenu program now allows unlimited use of soy in student meals. With soy added to hamburgers, tacos and lasagna, dietitians can get the total fat content below 30 percent of calories, thereby conforming to government dictates. “With the soy-enhanced food items, students are receiving better servings of nutrients and less cholesterol and fat.”
The need to create new markets for soy presented an irresistible challenge for Madison Avenue. Early advertisements for soy were primitive—a smiling farmer surrounded by musical notes and the words of a ditty for “crispy packs of nourishment”—Kellogg’s variety pack, which included Corn Soya breakfast cereal; a cow’s head depicted with soybean pods in a Seventh Day Adventist magazine; a small drawing of pudding topped with “frozen pure soy cream” in a 1947 Family Circle magazine.
During the late 1990s, ads for new-generation soy foods featured flower children riding bicycles and a not-amused mother who, according to the text, will feed her child soy foods in spite of what her elders have told her.
A survey of March 2004 health magazines reveals five-and-one-half pages of ads for products containing soy in Alternative Medicine (two of which promote soy as a solution to the problems of menopause); five-and-one-half pages in Vegetarian Times; and five pages in Yoga Journal. The ads that keep today’s health-oriented publications afloat aim at mainstream, not alternative, culture: soy milk ads feature faces of smiling children; high-protein bars create expressions of ecstacy on upside-down models; and a hostess who serves chocolate-covered soy nuts is the toast of her party.
Open a copy of Men’s Fitness and you will find pages and pages of full-color ads for soy-based candy bars and instant beverages promoted as a way to create the macho man with perfect abs. Sadly—ironically—most issues contain the requisite article advising these super-built Lotharios how to have great sex. Were Men’s Fitness to warn its readers about the fact that soy lowers testosterone levels in men, advertising revenues would dry up and the magazine would fold.
Perhaps those publications devoted to startling exposés will reveal the downside of soy? We can always hope. But Utne Reader and Mother Jones often carry full-page ads for soy. Only Mothering magazine has published articles warning consumers about soy-based infant formula, despite full-page ads for soy.
Of all modern industries, it is advertising that keeps its finger on the pulse of public consciousness; market surveys, demographic analyses, book sale trends, focus groups, consumer polls and university research help Madison Avenue gauge the dreams and preferences of that sole arbiter of corporate profits—the American consumer. Has the industry discovered resistance to soy foods among professionals? Then soymilk is promoted as something smooth and delicious with the caption, “Don’t be so stubborn!” Does soy have a weak male demographic? Then huckster soy as a prevention for prostate cancer through Michael Milken, former junk bond financier. Do shopaholics deep down desire a richer life, a commitment to something honest and real? An ad for soy-based bars and meal replacements angles the heads of two chic shoppers towards a “Supplement Facts” label: Serving Size: 1 Bar or Shake; Sense of achievement 100%; Compromise 0%. And the lonely hearts? Christiane Northrup, M.D., a well-known physician-author, tells women how to bring romance into their lives, and follows with paeans to the libido-reducing soy snacks, smoothies and chips she sells.
Do farmers need to feel good about growing soy? The Furrow, a magazine published in twelve languages by the John Deere tractor company, provides the requisite praise: “Just imagine you could grow the perfect food. This food not only would provide affordable nutrition, but also would be delicious and easy to prepare in a variety of ways. It would be a healthful food, with no saturated fat. In fact, you would be growing a virtual fountain of youth on your back forty. This ideal food would help prevent, and perhaps reverse, some of the world’s most dreaded diseases. You could grow this miracle crop in a variety of soils and climates. Its cultivation would build up, not deplete, the land. . . this miracle food already exists. . . . It’s called soy.”
Health claims, of course, must appear to have scientific backing. Scientists who serve as spokespersons for the soy industry are adept at simulating claims without substance. “Each year, research on the health effects of soy and soybean components seems to increase exponentially,” writes Dr. Mark Messina, organizer of five symposia on soy. “Furthermore, research is not just expanding in the primary areas under investigation, such as cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis; new findings suggest that soy has potential benefits that may be more extensive than previously thought.” And this research has been generously supported by the very companies that stand to benefit.
Soy got one of its biggest boosts with a 1998 FDA ruling allowing a health claim for soy, based on research showing that soy protein could lower cholesterol levels under certain conditions. Health claims on food packages are limited to heart disease, but assertions that soy prevents cancer quickly followed in promotional literature. “In addition to protecting the heart,” says a vitamin company brochure, “soy has demonstrated powerful anticancer benefits. . . the Japanese, who eat 30 times as much soy as North Americans, have a lower incidence of cancers of the breast, uterus and prostate.”
Claims of this sort fail to mention the fact that the Japanese, and Asians in general, have much higher rates of other types of cancer, particularly cancer of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas and liver. The logic that links low rates of reproductive cancers to soy consumption requires attribution of high rates of thyroid and digestive cancers to the same foods, particularly as soy causes these types of cancers in laboratory animals.
Marketing costs money, especially when it needs to be bolstered with “research,” but there’s plenty of funds available. All soybean producers pay a mandatory assessment of one-half to one percent of the net market price of soybeans. The total—something like eighty million dollars annually—supports United Soybean’s program to “strengthen the position of soybeans in the market place and maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets for uses for soybeans and soybean products.” State soybean councils from Maryland, Nebraska, Delaware, Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota, Illinois and Michigan provide another two and one-half million dollars yearly for “research.” Private companies like Archer Daniels Midland also contribute their share. ADM spent $4.7 million for advertising on “Meet the Press” and $4.3 million on “Face the Nation” during the course of a year. Public relations firms help convert research projects into newspaper articles and advertising copy; law firms lobby for favorable government regulations; IMF money funds soy processing plants in foreign countries; missionaries teach indigenous peoples how to raise soybeans and make soymilk; and free trade policies keep soybean abundance flowing to overseas destinations.
Kaayla Daniel’s research, presented in The Whole Soy Story, brings bedazzled consumers to their senses with her dispassionate history and straightforward analysis of the science behind soy. She tells the whole soy story, the story that the public needs to hear, the story that will burst the soy bubble and turn modern seekers of good health towards real food again, foods that soy has attempted to usurp. She also brings us a message of great urgency: the estrogenic compounds in soy are natural antifertility agents. Soy thus represents a threat not only to our health, but to our future.
The Whole Soy Story by Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN, is available from NewTrends Publishing, (877) 707-1776, Newtrendspublishing.com.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2005.