An organic label on soy products does not necessarily make them healthy

Posted: May 20, 2009 in science & technology
Tags: , ,

The following article is the executive summary of a research paper by the Cornucopia Institute. Part of the project was the development of an organic soy scorecard that rated such criteria as soybean sourcing and processing. Not surprisingly, a lot of products were found wanting, right down to actually presenting a health risk. This outcome is not surprising, given the size of the health food and organic industries, especially in the US, and as a result the amount of greenwashing going on. But: the results are still shocking – especially when it comes to organic baby food.

Cornucopia looked at the American market, but it is highly unlikely that things are different in Australia. In fact: research here, for example undertaken by the consumer organisation Choice, has shown several times that products like Sanatarium and Vitasoy soy milks are produced in industrial processes that are associated with health risks. Big money and a true commitment to producing food that enhances people’s and the planet’s wellbeing by and large do not go hand in hand.

Behind the Bean

The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry

With the continued marketplace shift toward eating organic, local, and sustainably produced food, more consumers are interested in knowing the story behind their food. This cultural shift represents consumers’ desire to eat healthily, and to invest in environmental health, family farms, animal welfare, and, often, their own local economies.

cornucopia1Adding to the social, health and environmental impacts of food-buying decisions, people purchasing organic soy foods, such as tofu and soymilk, want to know whether the soybeans were grown by American family farmers, whom they trust, or imported from China, Brazil, and other countries. Consumers, especially those investing their hard-earned dollars in organic brands, are edgy about imports after multiple contamination problems with imported food, including the recent China melamine scandal.

Many educated consumers also want to avoid genetically engineered ingredients, and many assume organic companies test for fraud or accidental contamination. Some soy consumers, many of them vegetarians or vegans for religious or philosophical reasons, feel it is important to support family-owned businesses that share their values, as opposed to buying brands owned by multi-billion-dollar corporations that are also heavily involved in conventional animal agriculture.

To shed some light on these questions and more, the Cornucopia Institute developed this research paper and the accompanying Organic Soy Scorecard. The scorecard rates organic soy food brands based on ten criteria, including soybean sourcing and production practices. The scorecard serves as an objective resource for consumers and wholesale buyers, and showcases the heroes in the organic soy foods business. Part I of the report examines some of the criteria of the scorecard in greater depth and showcases some of the companies that scored highly, as well as some of the companies that did not.

The report highlights the brands in the 5-Bean category that appear highly committed to organic integrity and source exclusively domestic organic soybeans, most often directly from family farmers (rather than five stars, the companion scorecard ranks brands on a 1-to-5 Bean rating). If we wish to see more North American farmers switching to organic agriculture, as opposed to relying heavily on genetically engineered crops, petroleum-based fertilizers, and toxic pesticides, consumers must support the companies that buy from North American organic farmers—and the Organic Soy Scorecard shows which companies do so.

At the bottom of the scorecard (in the 0-Bean and 1-Bean categories) are the companies that were unwilling to share their sourcing and production information with The Cornucopia Institute and, more importantly, their customers. Our research indicates that many of these companies are sourcing Chinese soybeans, and this may be why so many are unwilling to share their sourcing decisions.

cornucopia2Given the weak U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversight of organic certifiers working in China, their hesitation makes sense. When the USDA audited certifiers in all of China, for the first time in August 2007, they scrutinized four certifying agents but visited only two farms in China. They found multiple non-compliances of the federal organic standards. Noteworthy and worrisome violations include the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification. This raises serious concerns about whether foods grown organically in China follow the same USDA organic standards with which we require American farmers to comply. How can you sign an affidavit that you are following the letter of the law—when you have not had the opportunity to read the law in your native language?

Part II of the report exposes a “dirty little secret” in the natural foods business—the widespread use of a toxic and environmentally damaging chemical, hexane, in the manufacturing of “natural” soyfoods such as vegetarian burgers, nutrition bars, and protein shakes. The use of chemical solvents such as hexane is strictly prohibited in organic food processing, yet its use is widespread in the “natural” soy industry, including in some products labeled as “made with organic soybeans,” such as Clif®Bars. Hexane, a neurotoxin, is listed as a “hazardous air pollutant” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and grain processors, including soy processors, are responsible for more than two-thirds of all hexane emissions in the United States.

The effects on consumers of hexane residues in soy foods have not yet been thoroughly studied and are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Test results obtained by The Cornucopia Institute indicate that residues—ten times higher than what is considered normal by the FDA—do appear in common soy ingredients.

At least two hexane-extracted ingredients are found in certain processed organic foods, including organic infant formula. Both ingredients can be sourced organically. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that one of the ingredients, soy lecithin, be removed from the USDA’s National List of approved substances for use in organically labeled products (current regulations allow manufacturers to use conventional versions of certain minor ingredients if the organic version is commercially unavailable and it is deemed safe). Unfortunately, the NOSB also voted to keep a de-oiled form of conventional soy lecithin—produced with hexane and acetone—on the National List as a matter of convenience for food manufacturers.

Other hexane-extracted ingredients that many industry experts believe should not be present in organic foods, especially organic infant formula, are algal DHA and fungal ARA oils. These oils—nutritional supplements containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids—are produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation by way of a process that immerses fermented algae and soil fungus in a hexane bath. The Cornucopia Institute is especially concerned with evidence obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request with the FDA that these DHA and ARA oils, when added to infant formula, are linked to serious health complications experienced by some infants. Organic foods should be a refuge from chemically processed additives in foods: consumers expect nothing less.

The full report is available for free download from The Cornucopia Institute’s web site,

  1. Gavin Schutte says:

    I have been using soy for a long time on and off as I have many food intollerances.

    In the last few months I have increased my soy intake (in order to exclude dairy completely from my diet)

    Over the last 10 weeks I have experienced symptoms of nerve damage in my hands, arms, feet and legs. I also have spells of dizziness and extreme fatigue.

    All my blood tests have so far shown no problems at all. Yesterday I read with shock the findings regarding Hexane in nearly all soy products. I then researched the symptoms of gradual Hexane poisoning and guess what – it is exactly what I have been experiencing.

    I will now go to my doctor and request a test for Hexane poisoning.

  2. Alexsandraburt says:

    Do you know where I can purchase/order organic soy lecithin?
    I have been researching and cannot find even 1 source.

    Thank you so much for your time and knowledge,

    • isiria says:

      i don’t know where you live – here in australia you can buy it in certain health food shops as imports from germany.

  3. justinross83 says:

    What’s the big deal…

    We’re not talking much here. Just a drop; a drop of gasoline with every meal. Who hasn’t gotten their hands dirty at the gas station and grabbed a potato chip before washing?

    You know it’s happened before

    I was asked by our political director Alexis to write an article covering the current media hooplah about a simple hydrocarbon called hexane.


    As a by-product of every petroleum refinery on earth, there is a lot of cheap hexane out there and when you consider how efficient this alkane can be, the idea of just dumping it off the shores of Somalia seems so wasteful. For a while we used hexane as a cleaning agent for removing grease in the printing industry as well as a solvent for rubber cement, but since print media is dead and I’m a little too old to still be sniffing glue, hexane needs another gig. Free showers for the homeless? Clean our bullets for a second go? Glue the streets of Detroit to prevent emigration?

  4. […] An organic label on soy prod­ucts does not nec­es­sar­ily make them healthy ( […]

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