A Vegan Reassesses Soy: A Health and Environmental Perspective

Being mostly-vegan is certainly not easy. It doesn’t make you popular at restaurants, family gatherings or with people who love steak. But with the proper planning, it’s doable. And it’s worth doing because you know you’re living a more socially responsible lifestyle.

Or so I thought. My guiltless self-affirmation was called into question one night when my roommate looked at my dinner, a soy-based veggie burger with soy cheese plus edamame and observed, “Wow, everything you’re eating is made from soy.” Something about this declaration made me take pause. I’d been hearing a lot about soy in a negative context. As someone who loves Silk Soy about as much as I love animals, I’d chosen to ignore it. But if my diet was so soy heavy, I considered that I wasn’t as eco-friendly (or as healthy) as I thought.

The first big question I had about soy was: does it really reduce carbon emissions? A big part of my choice to be vegan was the belief that I was drastically reducing my carbon footprint in doing so. Unfortunately, I found in some cases, the answer is no. In fact, in the Amazon, where deforestation causes about 20 percent of climate change, it is frequently soy that’s causing the problem.

Fortunately, Greenpeace took the lead in pushing for a soy moratorium in Brazil that disallowed the planting of soy on deforested land and it seems to be working. In 2008, CNN reported no deforested land was used to grow soy. This year’s reports are due in a few weeks, but even if the moratorium proves successful, it doesn’t let us off the hook from being conscientious about our soy consumption, and even reducing it.

Of course, vegetarians, or humans in general, aren’t directly consuming the majority of the soy. The BBC reported that around 80 percent of the crop feeds the animals we eat. So we still need to consume less meat to decrease carbon emissions (and our indirect soy consumption), but if we want to be effective in our crusade, we can’t replace that hamburger with a nice slab of tofu, either. If we’re eating soy, we’re responsible for some of the damage.

Sadly, even organic soy products may not be as green as we think. Now, it’s pretty much confirmed that Silk Soy is using beans from Brazil and China, despite the organic label. The Organic Consumers Organization is encouraging people to boycott Silk Soy (yes, my heart is breaking) because of the way workers in these countries are treated and because even with monitoring, these soy farms still threaten the environment.

Even in the U.S., soy is grown most often industrially as a monocrop — a single crop in a giant field — meaning that it requires plenty of pesticides to maintain.  Most of the soy grown on our shores and abroad is also genetically modified, something many argue was not properly tested before being okayed by the USDA. And it is not just vegans who are noshing on it; soy finds its way into most of the products on our supermarket’s shelves these days, in the form of vegetable oil or lecithin, which is used as an emulsifier.

Beyond the environmental implications, the health implications are daunting. While the majority of scientific studies tout soy’s ability to regulate hormones for women, others discuss a connection to breast cancer.  And as for men, soy is said to lower their sperm count in large quantities.  This is all encouraging news for moderation.

In short, there is indubitably a dark side to soy. Though I love the taste of soy products, if being more careful about its consumption is the greener thing to do, I’m committed to doing it. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives out there.

A Slate investigation comparing the carbon footprint of soy vs. cow milk reminds us that turning soybeans into milk actually expends quite a bit of energy, as does transporting and distributing it.  We should probably be drinking less of these pre-packaged alternatives to milk, and consider making our own.  That being said, there are also alternatives to consider for health reasons.  My personal favorite is almond milk. Blue Diamond makes several delicious varieties that are fortified with calcium and high in Vitamin E. Oat milk is higher in protein, and Pacific Natural Food’s brand is packed with calcium, iron and riboflavin.

As for the soy-based veggie burger, they may be ubiquitous, but personally, I find bean-based veggie burgers to be more flavorful and less artificial tasting.  You can also reinforce eating and growing locally by making your own veggie burgers. The Savvy Vegetarian has a great all-vegan recipe for black-bean veggie burgers. And if you eat eggs, check out 101 Cookbook’s Ultimate Veggie Burger Recipe using garbanzo beans.

Another oft-overlooked source of protein is in grains. I did some research on gluten-free grains and what I found is that almost all wheat-alternatives are protein-packed and vitamin-rich. Grains such quinoa, spelt and farro offer endless options for recipes, and for health. Each packs its own unique flavor and set of nutrients, and can carry a meal while preventing the vegetarian’s “pasta-again” ennui.

Of course, the best way to ensure you are getting a good quality product is to know your farmer.  Buying soy locally, and eating it in moderation (like they do in Asia, where soy-based food is most popular) and you will be greener and healthier to boot.

Photo: portenna

21 thoughts on “A Vegan Reassesses Soy: A Health and Environmental Perspective

  1. This is why I gave up soy and started drinking local raw milk. The cows are pastured and enjoy a healthy satisfying life. We are much healthier, and so is the plante because of our decision. We also quit buying any manufactured soy based products and now eat the local meat counterpart. I buy pastured chicken from a local farm instead of buying soy chicken patties, beef from a local farm instead of bean/soy patties. I know these foods are more sustainable and healthier for me as well.

  2. Perhaps the moral of the story is simply that over reliance on any one food has the potential to be damaging to your health and the environment, whether it’s beef products, soy, HFCS, etc. Diversify, eat unprocessed (and soy products are typically anything but) and eat local when possible.

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  4. the health studies were done with soy protein isolate, not whole soy.

    folks in china and japan don’t have trouble conceiving, so the sperm study is obviously flawed, and breast cancer is more prevalent in the united states than in asia as well.

    true organic soy will not be GMO.

    silk is owned by dean foods, one of the largest food corporations there is. so there are good reasons to boycott them even before finding out about their shady soy sources.

  5. Your health reasons is founded on rumor and science that was coming bias sources. Its much like citing a source from a company trying to sell something.

    Rumor is the fact that it lowers sperm count. Studies show it doesn’t effect it.

    Bias source is the fact that soy causes hormones irregulation. Truth is, it doesn’t have much of an effect. I am more likely going to get breast cancer living in this toxic world and having it on my father’s side that I am for eating soy.

    As for your infomantion on farming? All farms cause environmental damage, not just soy farms. If we no longer feed animals soy products, we’ll move on the corn. Then corn will bring about pollution.

    I agree everything in moderation but really do your research before writing a heated blog like this.

  6. The Amazon connection is something I always find dubious, because those soybeans –as you stated– are going to animals who are then killed for their meat to wind up in markets. So I don’t really think there is a lot of ground to stand on for the argument that vegans who consume organic tofu are doing so at the expense of Amazon deforestation. However, I do think that an over-reliance upon soy in the vegan diet is bad for our bodies.

  7. most soy products are organic, which means non-gmo and not so much pesticides.

    also, those soy studies were on *mega* doses of soy isolate (not whole soy).

    personally, as a vegan, i buy local organic dried soy beans and make my own milk with a soy milk maker- it’s cheap, easy, and you can make your own veggie burgers with the leftover okara.

  8. Soymilk, tofu, tempeh and edamame are not the kinds of highy processed soy that might be questionable.

    Organic soybeans grown for human consumption are also not what is being talked about when the environmental dangers of soy are discussed.

    Sure, eat local, vary your legumes, start from scratch, and eat with the seasons, but don’t feel bad about throwing some tofu in with the local veggie stir fry over local brown rice. It’s way better than chicken, beef or fish.

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/05/meat-emissions.php

  9. I feel like you’ve muddied two arguments into one here, at the detriment of a very important bottom line.

    Agro-business and the environmental degredation that over-farming of single crops incurs is undeniable awful. Genetic tinkering in ALL foods is also potentially harmful, and undeniably environmentally destructive. Even the POSSIBLE medical issues associated with consuming *highly processed* forms of soy, like soy protein isolate, is an issue that warrants investigation and understanding.

    However, this has nothing to do with the lifestyle choice of being a vegan, and it is simply irresponsible to link the two. They are unrelated, because every thing associated with these ills that a vegan does, an omni does ten fold. That is simply the truth (I’ll explain if anyone needs the connections spelled out).

    I feel like this sort of misrepresentation of information, especially by somebody claiming to be vegan, is unthoughtful and just plain disappointing.

  10. Sure, an unprocessed, local, mindful omnivorous diet is probaby healthier and more ecologically sound than a junk food highly processed packaged vegan diet, but put some thought into a vegan diet, and you are going to beat the omni one hands-down. If you are eating a Boca Burger once a month, no big deal. If you are vegan for environmental reasons and are eating packaged conventional meat and dairy subs every day, then it’s time to rethink how you are eating.

    Here’s an awesome recipe for homemade vegan veggie burgers to start you out.

    1/2 cup thick rolled oats (first step is putting this in a bowl with 1/2 cup water)

    1 cup chopped mushrooms
    1 medium onion, finely chopped
    1 carrot, shredded or finely chopped
    1/2 tsp paprika
    1 tsp parsley
    1/2 tsp sage
    1/2 tsp thyme
    black pepper
    oil to saute

    1 tbs soy sauce
    Dash vegan worchestershie sauce or pickapeppa sauce
    1/4 cup nutritional yeast
    1 tbs flax meal
    1/4 cup bread crumbs
    3/4 cup cooked brown rice
    1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (I use pecans, almonds and cashews)

    1/2 cup wheat gluten
    1/4-1/2 cup more water

    Preheat oven to 350.
    Put the oats on to soak, then saute the veggies in olive oil. Add to bowl with oats, and add other ingredients up to the nuts and mix. Sprinkle gluten over the top, and add 1/4 cup water, then mix in the gluten. Knead this mixture for about 3 minutes, adding more water if it seems too dry. Use an ice cream disher to drop mixure onto a parchment or silpat covered cookie sheet, and flatten each patty. Bake 25-30 minutes, until firm.
    I get about 12 small burgers from this, I use 2 in my sandwich, my four year-old eats hers torn in pieces and dipped in ketchup with the bread seperate, my husband has 2 patties and 2 buns. If you freeze them, they can be reheated in the oven wrapped in foil for about 15 minutes. (I put on oven fries at 400, set the timer for 15 minutes, then stir the fries, throw the foil wrapped patties in with them and cook it all for another 15).

  11. Thanks for all these comments! Many good points have been made here, and I appreciate all the input. As I tried to convey early on in my post, doing this piece was an investigation for me, and as we all know, getting the bottom of anything dubbed a “controversy” tends to lead to more controversy.

    I WAS surprised to see that my tone may have been slightly misinterpreted. I definitely didn’t intend to write a “heated blog;” rather, I found myself having some questions about soy and wanted to investigate what the problems with it might be. I also am advocate of everything in moderation, but my post begins with me mentioning that I had an extremely soy heavy diet.

    In the same vein, I in NO WAY wished to imply that vegans were not doing better for the environment than omnis. I’m still a “mostly vegan,” and my goal was also to help readers check out some good vegan options that didn’t include soy. Regardless of what you think of health/environmental issues, all my commenters seems to agree that having a diverse diet that’s not too reliant on one type of food/crop is a good thing. There are many wonderful reasons to be a vegan, and that is why I am one. But this article was not about the merits of veganism, it was aimed at asking questions about soy. The reason that I linked the two topics is because, as a vegan, I am dependent on soy, and I also think a lot about how to have a greener diet. Being a vegan was why I PERSONALLY got curious about soy. And I wanted to share some of the things that I found to eat that aren’t soy.

    A few more points:

    Soy Protein Isolate–yes it’s in everyone’s food–but it’s also foods that health/environment conscious vegetarians like me eat. (Last time I checked, it was in Luna bars.) We should all check labels.

    Corn-Yes, it’s bad, too. The point is, in fact, soy is akin to corn in many ways.

    Organic soy–yes, I agree that if you buy organic, you don’t have to worry about a lot of this stuff. But if so-called organic beans are coming from the controversial Amazon, you ought to take pause, and be extra careful. (Unless of course you think the Amazon problems are hype…which I do not.)

    Health-Yes. It’s not all proven. And many many things are worse for you. The aim of this piece was to surface some of the literature that is out there, but of course, a skeptical eye is important when you read anything.

    Thanks to all for your interest in the post! Feel free to contact me via my blog if you have further questions.

    RB

  12. What I am trying to say is that it is not the SOY that is the problem, but rather any packaged, processed food.

    Yes, I eat a Luna Bar about once a week, and I carry them when I’m headed into a situation where I’m not expecting to find healthier foods, but I don’t think that choosing a Luna Bar over a hot dog cart is in any way a bad ecological or health choice. Sometimes, I get a pleasant suprise and the Luna Bar stays in my backpack for the next time, and sometimes I’m glad to have the option.

  13. Sorry, Michelle, I wrote my comment before I saw yours. I completely agree that it’s fine to eat a Luna bar. No one is perfect, and I certainly am not saying soy is worse than junk food.

    Again, I’m just encouraging everyone to think more about what’s in their food. It’s a call to further contemplation, nothing more.

  14. What a great article! Very well researched and written — thank you!

    There are a few points I want to make about soy.

    The first is that it is very damaging to the thyroid and hormonal system. Soy is a goitrogen, which means it blocks uptake of iodine, which the thyroid needs. This can cause hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and thyroid cancer.

    Other organs that need iodine the most are the breasts and ovaries. Women in Japan eat the highest amount of iodine (traditionally about 13 mg per day) in the form of fish stock and seaweed. They also have one of the lowest rates of breast cancer.

    Interestingly, the Japanese do not eat very much soy. It is used as a condiment, and most of the soy they eat is fermented (for a few years). The fermentation breaks down the phytic acid and goitrogens. Also, they can handle the soy intake due to their very high intake of iodine.

    Americans get very little iodine because the soil is depleted of minerals and we do eat a lot of soy (whether we know it or not).

    In addition to that, there’s the isoflavones in soy which are hormone disruputers.

    http://www.cheeseslave.com/2009/01/30/avoid-soy-for-thyroid-health/

    And soy is very hard to digest.

    I avoid all soy, take iodine supplements, and make fish stock for thyroid health.

    And I drink raw milk from cows grazing on organic pasture — from a family farm.

    Ann Marie

  15. Hey, I just wanted to write in with a minor point about your suggestion at the end of the article about high-protein grains. I think you accidentally implied that spelt and farro are non-wheat grains and gluten-free. In fact, they are both varieties of wheat and both contain gluten. If you’re looking specifically for gluten-free grains, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat are good ones to experiment with.

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  17. Hi, Rachel –

    I appreciate your clarification of the point that the vast, vast majority of the soy that is creating such a giant footprint is, once again, created by our over-reliance on animal products. Not only is this irresponsibly monocropped, it is an extremely low-grade, water polluting crop. You mentioned that this was due to feeding the animals in the food industry in your piece, but it wasn’t emphasized to the degree that it deserved to be.

    I am a longtime vegan and neither I not my family overemphasize soy. As has been pointed out, though, it is in a lot in the form of soybean oil and soy sauce as well as other forms. The point many have made is important – de-emphasizing processed foods and those not prepared by you. I know that we eat much more healthfully when I cook meals myself.

    In terms of soy milk – and all those other milks – being wastefully produced, I agree. Making it at home is optimal and easily done. Almond milk, rice milk, oat milk, etc. can all be easily and relatively inexpensively made at home.

    Last, and this is always a sticking point with me, pointing a parallel between cow’s milk and soy milk completely ignores the ethical issues inherent in the dairy industry. Cow’s milk is tied to the veal industry, the cheap meat industry (that is where “spent” or low-producing cows end up) and so much cruelty. Even the raw milk some of the comments referred to has the killing of a cow at the end of the road, and, perhaps, organic veal calves as the male dairy cows need to be have some purpose to farmers, and there aren’t that many breeding steers kept. Last, the organic/”free-range” animal products model is completely untenable given current consumption habits: it is simply a mathematical impossibility. I would love to hear some of the “green” animal products cheerleaders address this elephant in the room at some point.

    Thanks again for your essay.

  18. This critique of soy should not lead anyone who had previously been vegan or is considering veganism to start eating animal products, such as organic cow’s or goat’s milk. Even on organic dairies, the cow’s babies (the calves whom the milk is actually for) are almost always separated way too soon from their mothers, within a few days or week or two after being born. (The calves will drink up the profits after all.) Even industry supporters, such as Temple Grandin, acknowledge this early separation causes tremendous suffering for mother and calf due to strong mother/baby bonding. If anyone has seen how a mother dog or cat (as well as the babies)reacts if her babies are taken away too soon, they know how heart-wrenching this is!

    There are always alternatives to soy: almond, cashew, hemp, rice, or oat milk as well as beans, seitan (wheat protein) and whole grains…

  19. Also, let’s not forget all animals raised for food endure a terrifying death. Even if the animals were raised “free-range,” they are all sent to the same slaughter plants. So go vegan!
    An excellent site with well-researched, accurate info: http://www.veganoutreach.org

  20. While moderation is obviously advisable, I think the biggest issue with soy is that so much of it is also being used, as many other grains are, to feed livestock rather than people. Of course other nut and grain-based beverages are great too.

  21. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and I personally think that the soy companies have done better propaganda marketing than the dairy marketers.They are both gross.