Soy is fast becoming a healthier, greener option for meat and dairy; not just for vegetarians, vegans, and the dairy intolerant, but for the environmentally, ethically and health conscious too. As most coffee shops now offer soy milk, and soy based products – such as tofu and tempeh – become a standard option in many restaurants and cafes; it’s provided the world with a widely available alternative, in which to get your protein, calcium and B vitamins.
Over the last few months I have certainly become a bit of a soy fiend; and find I rarely go a day without some kind of soy based product. The convenience of tofu burgers, soy milkshakes and tempeh “bacon” rashers have largely made my transition to veganism almost seamless; in a world where I can lazily keep my eating habits if I want, simply by switching to this magic bean ingredient!
But this has got me thinking. Making these switches has been fantastic for avoiding animal products; but as the industry continues to grow, how green can soy really be? So I did a bit of digging, and opened a whole can of worms…
Valued in eastern cuisine for centuries, the protein dense Soybean has traditionally been used in Japanese dishes such as miso, natto, tofu and, of course, soy sauce. Unlike other legumes, soy beans contain all 8 essential amino acids; as well as essential fatty acids omega 3 and 6. It’s also very low in saturated fat and has cholesterol lowering properties. Rich in B vitamins and a good vegetable protein source, it really is a lazy girls dream to keeping her nutrition in check!
It’s also incredibly versatile. As soy is almost flavourless, it naturally clings to flavours and can be transformed to anything; from a meat substitute like a sausage or “fried chicken”, to sweet delights like ice cream and cheesecake. It’s no wonder this Eastern delight has taken the world by storm and found its way into the mainstream.
Everything in moderation
But just because soy can be used to as a nutritional rich alternative to animal products, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the healthiest way to eat all the time. In fact, some nutritionists have argued that we might actually be doing ourselves more harm, through– our favourite pastime in the West – overconsumption!
While in the East soy was eaten in moderation, accompanied by a rich variety of fresh vegetables, meat or fish; soy’s use in an ever growing variety of foods, is actually putting us at risk of consuming an unhealthy quantity of the bean. This is largely because Soybeans are high in non-nutritive phytic acid, or phytates; which can actually block the uptake of some essential minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.
However, fermented soy – such as miso, Shoyu or Tamari soy sauce and tempeh – contain significantly less phytates and are therefore the most nutritious of the soy products; so these are apparently the way to go.
Soy and the environment
Regardless of its health benefits, and its role in making it easier to be veggie in a modern world; soy is rather controversial environmentally. As the growth of the soy industry has soared in recent years, so too has its social and environmental impact. Mass deforestation, poor working conditions, unfair trade and a huge carbon footprint from global production and travel, makes soy an increasingly unsustainable industry.
It is in fact lagging behind commodities such as palm oil in terms of responsible production; with only 3% of soy currently certified as responsibly-produced. The Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) are working to change this; primarily through the development, implementation and verification of a global standards, which currently do not exist.
Meanwhile, in South America alone, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil; threatening wildlife, global climate, biodiversity, water reserves, soil quality and of cause, the people who live there. Soy is quickly becoming one of the biggest contributors to environmental destruction.
However, about 85% of soy production is made not for tofu, soy milk and soy sauce; but to feed our huge taste for meat. The large majority of the raw soy imported into the EU each year – weighing in at approximately 40 million tonnes – is used solely to feed livestock for meat production. This means that most of the soy produced isn’t even being consumed by us directly, it’s being filtered through an animal; in which humans get a fraction of soy’s benefits.
As fellow blogger Manny Rutinel points out “A ten acre farm can produce enough food to support 60 people through the production of soy, 24 people through the production of wheat, ten people through the production of corn, but only two through the production of beef. This efficiency could also be used to end world hunger.”
Is this really the best use of our world resources?
Things to do
- Limit your intake of animal based products, especially meat. You can calculate your soy use with the RTRS calculator
- Buy responsibly. Only buy soy products which you know have been responsibly sourced, and are ideally organic.
- Reduce your consumption of soy. Following research, the UK government’s Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) encourage the consumption of at least 25g of soya protein per day. But leading from Japan’s example – who traditionally consume less than this – we should enjoy soy sparingly.
- Hungry for change? Saving the Cerrado savannah, one bacon butty at a time…
- A Roadmap to Responsible Soy: approaches to increase certification and reduce risk
- The sustainable trade initiative: soy
- Soy, you & deforestation