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Oct 032013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Are soy foods the new milk?

It seems like I’m always running into someone at the grocery who’s warning me about eating tofu or soy-based faux meats. Last week, the checker looked concerned about a couple protein bars I was buying. She said she couldn’t eat “those.” Soy, she intoned.

This week I encountered a man studying the labels on the alternative cheese. He bought five packs of one brand made with almonds. It didn’t have soy, he said knowingly. Yes, I nodded back, I understood. Kind of. I tossed some of the almond cheese into my cart and resolved to learn more.

I was tired of soy much confusion.

Tofu and Noodles

Tofu and noodles. Yum? (Photo: GreenRightNow.com)

This soy discussion does remind me of the milk debate, which is at least 4 gallons deep and extremely polarized with Weston A. Price advocates facing off vigorously against those who claim Monsanto’s failed, but still active, rBGH experiment is of no consequence. (To recap: Milk is either a strong protein which you must force into your kids’ gullets twice a day (many pediatricians say) or a “weak protein” meant for calves not kids. It should be consumed raw to get all the nutrients, or highly pasteurized to kill all the bacteria. It’s mightily important that you drink only skim milk to avoid dangerous fats, or critical that you avoid skim milk, which has been stripped of all nutritional value. The growth hormone rBGH is nothing at all, or its shoving kids into puberty before they learn to read.)

See what I mean? Milk. Confusing.

And it’s much the same for soy. It’s either a health food darling, or a false prophet.

Once upon a time, say in the 1990s, soy was golden. We’d discovered (like the Chinese thousands of years before) that it was a powerful protein, packing 10 grams in just half a cup, and without all those concerning fats attached to other proteins, like ribeye. Just like the calcium-rich milk that pediatricians kept nagging you about, soy was becoming a seductive package of positives.

In fact, it was on an escalator to the health Hall of Fame, where it would rescue us from clogged arteries, insidious cholesterol and the near certainty that we (women) would get breast cancer.

Americans, perennially seeking the quick fix, softened their views on Tofu, began drinking soy milk, and nibbling and mispronouncing edamame.

Of course, like so many things, this “new” health food started turning up in everything. (Did you know American farmers grow a lot of soybeans?) Like so many foods today – flax, chia seeds, quinoa – it wore a halo of good associations.

And then the pendulum swung against soy. The backlash, powered in part by the 2005 book The Whole Soy Story by Dr. Kaayla Daniel, was probably at least partly deserved. Soy had crept into a lot of products and that now we were worried about its estrogenic properties. In addition, the vast majority of US soybeans were genetically modified (GM). We were eating a GM food that could be scrambling signals to our endocrine system.

This being America, we naturally became hysterical.

Soy products were suddenly a hot button issue. Studies emerged showing that soy raised the risk of breast cancer. Stories circulated about soy-eating men growing man breasts. There was talk about how soy over-consumption could cause thyroid issues.

None of this has been shown to be true.

Soy foods

Edamame, a whole soy food, and minimally processed soy milk, still good for you.

As it turns out, we don’t really know if soy prevents or triggers breast cancer. The studies are conflicting and inconclusive. The effects of soy on male hormones also are largely unknown. The underlying theory, that phytoestrogens in soy could promote or depress estrogenic activity in the body remains worthy of study, and is still being studied, but we don’t understand all the mechanisms.

We know that breast cancer rates among Asian women are lower than for American women, and it’s long been believed that this is linked to their soy-enriched diet. But beyond eating tofu and edamame, they also eat more vegetables and fish, and less red meat than Americans.

And those male breasts? They’re mostly, and possibly entirely, apocryphal.

The effect of soy on the thyroid is still under study. Thyroid issues, including cancer, have been on the rise in the US. Is soy to blame, or something else? The hunt is still on, and experts do advise that if you have an existing thyroid issue, you should limit soy-based foods.

As the pendulum swings back toward a center ground, many experts have stepped forward to guide us out of the soy fog.

Soy is still good for you

Nutritionists and doctors now say that soy products in their basic or minimally processed forms – tofu, soy milk, edamame, tempeh, miso – are just fine to eat, even good for you.

That’s especially true for tempeh, soy sauce and miso, which are fermented, conferring a positive effect on the human gut (or so they say!).

“In truth, good human studies on soy are limited, but those we do have suggest that soy may help lower cholesterol, prevent cancer, increase bone density, protect the kidneys of people with diabetes, and relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes,” says Dr. Dr. Mark Hyman on his health blog.

Dr. Mehmet Oz still touts soy as helping defend against breast cancer, but notes that no one should eating heaping bowls of it. One or two servings of soy a day is plenty, he says.

The American Heart Association (AHA) still believes tofu has a righteous place on your plate even if its cholesterol-lowering magic has been mostly debunked, according to a report on protein by the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The AHA committee says that even though soy protein itself has little direct effect on cholesterol, soy foods are good for the heart and blood vessels because they usually replace less healthful choices, like red meat, and because they deliver plenty of polyunsaturated fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and are low in saturated fat.”

This is great news for vegetarians and vegans who want to keep soy in their protein line up.

Soy Isolates, not so much

The taint lingers, however, over processed soy

Processed soy foods, as well as overblown health claims about soy generally, are what prompted Dr. Daniel to sound the alarm with her book.

She advises avoiding soy burgers, soy cheese, soy energy bars, soy ice cream and soy powders.

She and others who are soy-wary say that too many (though not all) of these products contain soy isolates or soy powder, which have been separated from the whole soybean via processing.

They are a couple overarching criticisms of these ingredients: First, they do not provide the high-protein benefit of whole soy products. Secondly, unless they are organic, they may contain residues of hexane, a chemical used in processing. Another concern is that soy in many forms is becoming ever-present in many processed foods, particularly because GM soybean oil has been such a go-to oil for grocery baked goods.

Dr. Daniel lofts additional arguments against soy foods, including the fact that soy contains phytates, which block the absorption of some nutrients. Others look at phytates, however, as being perfectly acceptable, and performing an appropriate function in the body. This area, too, remains understudied.

Dr. Andrew Weil, as he explains in this video, boils it down like this: Whole soy, go for it. These new soy derivatives, maybe hold off.

As for tofu, that white block of versatile soybean curd that’s so adored by many vegetarians and ridiculed by the uninitiated or unconvinced, Andrea Nguyen, a cooking teacher in Northern California and author of “Asian Tofu,” says it’s not a miracle ingredient. But it is a tasty, low-fat food that you should learn how to cook properly before crossing it off your list.

“The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet, one-size-fits all approach to healthy eating,” Nguyen says on her blog. “With regard to soy, all the claims about the health benefits of eating lots of soy – from lowering cholesterol and mitigating hot flashes to preventing breast and prostate cancer, helping weight loss, and preventing osteoporosis – are inconclusive. So are the claims against eating soy.”

So enjoy tofu, if you like it, she says. It’s completely healthy — in moderation.

Which is what the Harvard protein review recommended in its “Straight Talk about Soy” section:

“Eat soy in moderation. Soybeans, tofu, and other soy-based foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to go overboard: Two to 4 servings a week is a good target; eating more than that likely won’t offer any health benefits and we can’t be sure that there is no harm.”

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jan 212011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

People who depend on soy milk, tofu and veggie burgers as staples of their vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets get good news nearly every day about the healthful benefits of eating a low-fat, heart-healthy food that’s rich in protein and antioxidants.

Eden Foods gets top marks on the Soy Scorecard.

Now here’s the bad news: If you don’t know where and how all those soybeans are grown and processed, you could be eating a lower quality product that relies on cheap imported food, contains genetically modified (GM or GMO) soybeans and is not certified Organic.

Yes, its true, just as you need to know where your meat, produce and dairy comes from — you need to run a background check on your soy products.  The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin advocacy for small farmers and sustainable, organic food production, can help.

In 2009, Cornucopia rated tofu and other soy-based foods, giving the highest marks to those that are owned by families or farmers; buy mostly or exclusively organic soybeans; produce a high percentage of products that are certified Organic; buy mainly or exclusively non-GMO  soybeans; buy North American-grown soybeans (or grow their own).

Using this scorecard can help you support local or regional food networks and North American farmers, and avoid producers who buy cheap, genetically modified and less monitored soybeans from exporters like China. (Caveat: Just because something comes from China, doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it does mean it carries a higher carbon footprint because of necessary shipping. It also typically means more laxity in monitoring for adherence to organic production and a less transparent process that can hide flaws, according to Cornucopia.

The advocacy group recently praised one of the soy makers on its list, The Tofu Shop, for changing its buying practices to include only North American soybeans. Tofu Shop moved up from a “four bean” rating to the top tier, among the “five bean”-rated companies.

Here is the list of the top soy milk/tofu producers as rated by Cornucopia. These top nine soy product makers all scored very high on Cornucopia’s scale, being virtually equals among kings. To see the next categories, check out the scorecard here.

1. Eden Foods, Clinton, Mich., distributes nationally and internationally. Makes: soymilk, tofu, miso, soy sauce, ponzu sauce and canned soybeans. (Bonus: Eden Foods reportedly does not use the resin coating on cans that’s been implicated in the controversy over BPA. Virtually all other canned products in the U.S. are packed in cans lined with a BPA-containing resin. It’s unknown if this is as harmful as polycarbonate made with BPA, which leaches the chemical when heated, some stories suggest that acid-containing foods like tomatoes can eat into can linings. Rank: 955 out of 1,000 possible points.

2. Rhapsody Natural Foods, Montpelier, Vermont. The raters wanted to sing this tempeh company’s praises, giving it a 920 on a 1,000 scale. Rhapsody’s tempeh is distributed in all the New England states and New York.

Tennessee-based FarmSoy has been making tofu and soy products since the 1970s.

3.  Unisoya, Quebec, Canada, makes tofu and meatless sausages that’s sold in Western Canada and the U.S. (920)

4. Vermont Soy, Hardwick, Vermont, makes soymilk sold in the Northeastern U.S. (920)

5.  Small Planet, Newport, Wash., makes tofu sold in the Western U.S. (920)

6. FarmSoy , Summertown, Tenn., tofu and soy yogurt maker, sold in Fresh Market stores (predominantly in the Southeast and Central part of the

Preparing Tofu in the smokehouse at the Tofu Shop (Photo: The Tofu Shop).

U.S.) (910)

7.  Twin Oaks, Louisa, Va., makes tofu, tempeh, soymilk and mushroom pate sold in the Mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast U.S. (910)

8. Green Cuisine , Victoria, Canada, makes tofu and tempeh sold in Canada (900)

9.  Tofu Shop by Tofu Shop Specialty Foods, Arcata, Calif., makes many tofu varieties and soymilk sold in Calif. and Oregon. (900)

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network


Nov 152010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Our friends in vegan-land issue a call every year about this time asking people to consider celebrating the holidays without eating animals.

For those of you already looking for turkey substitutes and other veggie friendly recipes, you can jump off right now to Gentle Thanksgiving, where they’ve got a recipe for juicy, tofu-based stuffed Not-A-Turkey. Or skip over to Meatless Mondays and check out their long list of veggie dinner entrees or to the ready-to-go veggie “turkeys” by Tofurky or Gardein or Field Roast.

Gardein's Turk'y is one veggie option for T-Day

We recognize that some people might find this call to abandon the roast beast needless, strange, even an affront to their position atop the food chain. That is certainly understandable considering that the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas ham (or brisket or pork loin roast) are a big part of the winter holidays. Other events that fall around this time, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, also have their meat components, kosher or otherwise. Having meat is usually part of the repast.

Among holidays, Thanksgiving is most dependent on its meat. Known by its entree, Turkey Day,  recalls the hardships of the pioneers who faced starvation when settling the U.S., and were saved by helpful Native Americans and their own fortitude (but mostly by helpful Native Americans). The roast turkeys and squash of those early harvest feasts stoked the health of the settlers, helping them endure the harsh winter.

Yet on this shrinking planet, where food scarcity looms like an anvil over human existence and family farms are giving way to hyper-driven factory facilities known for brutalizing animals and workers and spreading infection, it is time to consider reducing our meat intake. Doing so on Thanksgiving can be a symbolic nod in this direction. But the day doesn’t really matter. We should  take stock of how much meat we eat every day, every year, and consider shifting our diet toward plant-based meals. Go meatless just one day of the week, perhaps; that’s what Meatless Mondays is all about.

In today’s world, it is still the neighborly thing to share our food and expertise, as the Native Americans did, and many of us will donate food to those less fortunate this season.

But more may be required of us.

Producing meat takes so much energy — a lot more than growing grains or vegetables for food — that the “Western diet” is being blamed for the loss of land around the world.

A 2010 United Nations Environmental Programme report on dwindling resources, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” identified the meat-intensive diet as a major contributor to the loss of habitat and native species, and to increased pollution. Livestock operations don’t just claim a lot of land, they produce a lot of waste because the majority of companies controlling the process don’t follow sustainable practices.

The report noted that:

  • Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the consumption of freshwater worldwide. Some of this water is devoted to growing grains and produce that we eat directly; but more than half of crops grown worldwide are used to feed livestock. (Which is a crazy situation because the beef cattle eating all that grain are ruminants or grass eaters; the grain is used simply to fatten them quicker and make the meat more fatty and tender, another questionable “Western” contribution to food production.)
  • Livestock farming ranked third on the report’s list of “produced goods” with the greatest environmental impact. (Vehicle manufacturing and pig iron/steel products ranked first and second). This ranking looked at the greenhouse gas emissions, use of metal and organic resources and contribution to the acidification of the oceans over the products’ entire life cycle).

Many people displaced by flooding in Pakistan already struggle with malnutrition. (Photo: American Medical Corps)

Even fossil fuels didn’t present as large of a sustainability challenge as food consumption, particularly when diets are weighted toward animal products, according to the report’s nine authors who came from universities around the world.

“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products,” they wrote. “Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products…”

The authors also questioned whether we should be using our arable land to grow biofuels, and they lament the loss of forests in countries that have sacrificed these resources to expand livestock operations.

As our world population grows, the discussion of how to use the world’s finite land, will gain urgency. Already experts are warning of another possible food crisis reminiscent of 2008 as food prices spiral in parts of the world.

So this Thanksgiving, roast a bird, if that’s your tradition. (See our list of greener turkey options.) But, once the leftovers are gone, consider following up the feast with a pledge to lower the impact of your diet. Then go make an avocado sandwich.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network