Grocery store shelves are packed with soy products.

Grown all over the world, the simple bean dates back 5000 years with the Chinese who grew the crop not for consumption, but as a rotation crop that infused the soil with nitrogen.

Given the aura of health and perfection marketing has created around soy products, one would expect them to go from the wholesome natural state of a plant based item straight to the package. The real process of soybean to soyfood, however, is much longer and with many points of concern. 

Of the more than 216 million tons of soybeans produced each year, almost all are crushed and processed into soybean oil. The resulting meal is then reused in a myriad of ways, from animal feed, low-end dog food, processed food fillers and the production of other products. Millions of dollars in marketing has convinced consumers that products made from the industrial waste that results from soybean oil production are good enough to eat.

By now, one would hope it is easier to see through self-serving propaganda spread by the industrial food machine. Apparently not. From 1992 to 2008, soyfoods sales increased from $300 million to $4 billion, a 13-fold increase in 16 years. Gone are the days when soy proponents had to search high and low for soy-based alternative burgers.

A growing body of evidence, however, pokes holes in marketing claims, many of which are made based on unduplicated studies paid for by soy producers themselves.

In turn, new concerns about possible detrimental effects of higher amounts of soy in the diet have come to light.

While investigating nutrients in animal and human food for both business and spiritual reasons, Bette McKibben realized that soy was in more products than she’d ever imagined.

“We went through the cupboards looking at ingredients. Soy milk, oil, liquids and filler were everywhere,” said the co-owner of McK Ranch in

Dallas.

McKibben and her husband David decided to minimize the use of soy in their kitchen.

“As our product is an extension of us, it would be hypocritical to do it on one level and not the other,” she said, and the choice extends to their business of producing all-natural beef for families.

McK cows are grass fed, without the use of the common and low cost soy based animal feeds.

“It does add flavor to jerky, so we use a small amount there,” McKibben said.

Knowing it was a conscious choice makes it easier for her to bear.

While only .5 percent of the population is allergic to soy it is still in the top eight food allergens. Soy sources can be difficult to discern as soy products are often heavily processed, and some may have all but removed the soy protein that is causing the immune system response. Some people with milk allergies find they are also allergic to soy.

The industry touts a wide range of health benefits, from lowering bad cholesterol to protecting against certain types of cancers. But many scientists quibble with the number and quality of studies used to back up those claims, and the independence (or lack thereof) of their origin.

Dr. Kaayla Daniel authored The Whole Soy Story (NewTrends Publishing, 2005), which presents the history and a different scientific truth about the bean.

“Unlike in Asia where people eat small amounts of whole soybean products, Western food processors separate the soybean into two golden commodities — protein and oil. There’s nothing safe or natural about this.”

Miso, tamari, tempeh and tofu start with whole beans that are fermented at least three months. The process improves the bean’s legendary poor digestibility, but more importantly the phytic acid content is reduced. Without fermentation, the bean actually inhibits the absorption of calcium, iron and zinc. Soy also contains isoflavones — estrogen-mimicking molecules — that have been shown to affect the thyroid and endocrine systems. Levels are isoflavones are reduced by more than half when whole beans are fermented.

“Today’s high-tech processing methods not only fail to remove the anti-nutrients and toxins that are naturally present in soybeans but leave toxic and carcinogenic residues created by the high temperatures, high pressure, alkali and acid baths and petroleum solvents,” Daniel said.

Oil extraction is rarely a low-overhead, natural process. Beans are cracked and the oil is produced by a process called solvent extraction which uses commercial hexane. Any soy product aside from fermented soy is the result of long and harsh chemical processing, in part due to the bean’s poor digestibility in its natural state. Those seeking to increase the quality of their diet may gain more from avoiding processed foods than adding more to them, soy and otherwise.

Soy is a concern for Evann Remington, owner of Organic Fresh Fingers Inc., which provides fresh, local, natural and organic food for schools and daycares.

“Soy can be an endocrine disruptor, that’s a big concern when serving young children,” Remington said.

Soy alternatives and fillers might make her job easier. Instead, her inventive use of other beans and lentils and special techniques produce flavorful foods such as mac and cheese that has all the texture and flavor but markedly less fat with more protein and fiber, and without the potential problems of soy.

In moderation, soy likely poses no significant health risk, and may be a welcome addition to someone with a food allergy that is seeking an alternative, such as those who enjoy soymilk.

However, the intense processing of soy makes it a less-than-green food choice. One glass of soymilk has more soy than the “traditional Asian diet,” the success of which is often presented as proof of soy’s benefits.

Add in another glass of soymilk, a Gardenburger, NotDog and a chunk of soy cheese on top of that and the amount of soy consumed is much higher than any traditional consumption. Only time will tell just what long-term results may arise.