The soy industry actively promotes its products as the solution to world hunger. Yet doctors representing Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the French branch of Doctors without Borders, took a strong stand last year on World Food Day against the soy-corn mixes routinely given to the world’s starving children by the United Nations World Food program (WPF) and UNICEF. World Food Day is observed every October 16 to honor the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The soy-corn blends stave off hunger but are nutritionally poor, leaving children malnourished and prone to growth stunting, immune disorders, disease and death. At a press conference in Kenya, Dr. Buddhima Lokuge, the U.S. manager of MSF’s campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, stated, “The importance of nutrients and the quality of food aid has to be addressed not only by international donors, including the U.S. government, but also by organizations that use pictures of malnourished children to raise funds without a focus on the nutritional quality of food.” Dr. Lokuge noted that an extensive report documenting the results of 82 supplementary programs consistently showed the soy-corn products were “failing many children.”
Christophe Fournier, President of MSF, added, “We are talking about millions of kids that are at risk of dying . . . . It’s not enough just to give food. It’s what’s in the food that counts . . . Without the right amounts of vitamins and essential nutrients in their diet, young kids become vulnerable to disease that they would normally be able to fight off easily.”
What are the alternatives? The MSF doctors recommend Plumpy Nut and Plumpy Doz, pastes made from peanuts, peanut oil, powdered milk, powdered sugar and fortified with vitamins and minerals. The products do not require water, do not need to be mixed, require no refrigeration, can be stored in hot climates, have a long shelf life and are easy to transport. In marketing language the products are RUF—Ready to Use Food.
The downside is that the product is considerably more expensive. The cost of enough fortified food to treat a malnourished child for two months is about $42 compared to about $11 for the soy/corn blend. But the peanut-milk blend helps children recover more quickly from malnutrition, strengthens their immune systems, protects from disease and prevents stunted
growth. Accordingly, it could dramatically cut emergency and long-term health care costs and ease the burden on health services that are under- financed, overburdened and lacking resources.
Currently only about three percent of the 20 million children who receive help worldwide receive these peanut-milk products, and those children are almost always near death. To help children before they become gravely ill, MSF has piloted a program that gives it to all children under three years old in some at-risk communities.
The new products have already proved their mettle. In Niger in 2005, MSF treated 60,000 malnourished children who were near death; they had a 90 percent success rate. “MSF had never treated that many people in a nutritional crisis,” said Milton Tectonidis, a nutritionist with MSF. “These products can do it because they can be administered at home. Unbelievably, many of the most severe cases can nevertheless be treated at home. And this is the only way to go where there’s so many. There’s no way we can hospitalize all of them.”
Tectonidis pleaded for more companies to develop RUFs. “Although the United Nations and other agencies now are really stepping up their response and have signed on to these new products, we’re very worried that, by themselves, they will not be able to scale up the production and distribution and use of these products quickly enough.”
U.S. policies on food donations are partially responsible for encouraging the ongoing use of the cheap soy/corn blend. Washington spends an average of $2 billion on food aid programs a year and donates surplus soy, corn and wheat. Money is given with the stipulation that it be spent buying U.S. products. A bill to make food aid more flexible is currently being blocked in Congress by politicians set on protecting powerful voting blocs of agribusiness and shipping agents that make millions of dollars from the policy.
More Bad News for the Soy Industry
Last winter the Harvard School of Public Health announced findings that were very surprising, at least to them. Studying infertility among couples who had been trying in vain to conceive, the researchers found that men eating just one half cup of soy food products per day showed 41 million fewer sperm per milliliter.
In July, these findings were published in the journal Human Reproduction. Lowered sperm quantity was the most serious adverse effect, with the effect slightly more pronounced among overweight and obese men. Sperm motility, morphology and ejaculate volume were not affected at that level of consumption. The industry’s response? Repeat the myth that Asians eat massive amounts of soy with no apparent effects on fertility, deflect the blame from soy to excess weight and diminish the problem of 41 million fewer sperm swimmers by reminding folks that only one sperm is needed for conception.
July also saw the publication in Neurotoxicology of evidence that soy consumption during pregnancy can damage the female fetal brain, leading to early puberty.
Researchers from North Carolina State University examined the effects of soy genistein (a plant estrogen found in soybeans) and equol (a metabolite of the soy estrogen daidzein), on the reproductive lives of female laboratory rats. According to neurotoxicologist Heather Patisaul, PhD, the study was carried out on rats, but is extremely relevant to humans because both the human and rat hypothalamus are “critically sensitive” to genistein and equol during this crucial stage of development. “That part of the brain is organized by hormones during development—which is the neonatal stage for rats and during gestation for humans,” she explained.
This study is significant because it is the first to show how and why this happens. We now know that soy estrogens alter the physical organization of the hypothalamus, a region of the brain essential to the regulation of puberty and ovulation. According to Dr. Patisaul, the findings are extremely worrisome because “the changes in brain structure cannot be reversed.”
This latest study spotlights the risk of soy to the female fetus. The dangers of estrogenization to the male fetus have previously been established. Soy during pregnancy can feminize males, and has been linked to the epidemic of hypospadias, a birth defect in which the opening of the penis is not found at the tip but on the underside. A UK study showed this birth defect is five times more likely to occur in boys born to vegetarian women than to women on an omnivorous diet. Although one study isn’t proof, it is certainly reason for caution. Currently, a large scale European Commission study is underway to investigate soy’s likely role in hypospadias.
Scientists have known for years that estrogenic compounds—including mammalian hormones, environmental estrogens and the phytoestrogens found in soybeans—cross the placental barrier in humans. People today are rightly concerned about the effect of bisphenol A and other environmental estrogens on human health, but need to be aware that naturally occurring plant estrogens such as those found in soy can have similar effects.
Petition to Rescind Soy Health Claim
Our petition to the FDA to rescind the soy health claim is now posted on the government regulations website. The FDA soy/heart health claim appears on bottles of soy milk, boxes of tofu and other soy products to create the impression that soy is healthy; the health claim, approved in 1999, has dramatically boosted soy sales.
We urge our members to submit comments in support of this ably written petition. In 2006, we were able to defeat a proposal to allow a claim that soy prevents cancer; now it is time to get rid of the claim that soy prevents heart disease.
Points to make: soy protein isolate and other highly processed modern soy protein products are not safe and have no long history of use in the food supply; studies published since 1999 undermine the credibility of—and conclusions drawn—from key studies evaluated by the FDA when it approved the health claim in 1999; recent studies show that soy can contribute to or cause heart disease, including endothelial damage (especially in women), heart arrhythmias and cardiomyopathy, an increasingly prevalent condition that affects 1 in 500 Americans.
Finally, if your health has been damaged by consuming soy, please write from your heart and tell your story. To submit your comments, go to http://www.regulations.gov and put in the Docket number FDA-2008-P-0452 . Then click on “Send a comment or submission.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2008.