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TDG: The Billion-Dollar Myth: Soy


Fat Guy
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Thanks for the comments.

Soya v soy beans I'm not familiar with the history of the name and I don't know whether it has anything to do with GM. Much of the soy bean crop in the US is now GM - I don't have the the numbers to hand - but my piece on soy processing is not about GM in any case.

The same adverse effects on the delicate vegetable oils would occur if non-GM soy beans were processed under high heat and pressure in the way I describe.

It's true that soy as a cure-all health food is less established in the UK and that the piece is about how the US soy bean industry gained respectibility as a health food. The soy bean industry is also much smaller in the UK. But watch out. As we've seen many times, good and bad trends (farmers' markets, factory farming) in food and agriculture often find their way to Blighty after starting in the US.

There were several questions about MSG. I'm no expert, but on balance I believe those who doubt that it's safe. It is known to damage retinal and nerve cells in animals; known to cross the 'blood-brain barrier'; and the FDA saw fit to persuade manufactures to remove it from infant foods. Humans accumulate glutamate in the blood at a faster rate than mice and monkeys, animals which suffered from MSG toxicity in the studies. In experimental animal studies, 'MSG babies' were short and obese, suffered hormonal disorders and had difficulty reproducing. Not a fate I fancy.

One book I find solid is Exicitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Russell Blaylock, a neurosurgeon and clinical assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He quotes the research of John Olney, MD, a neuroscientist at the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis. (He also makes a wider argument about other flavor enhancers (including aspartame) and their relationship to neurologocal disorders and diseaseas such as Alzheimers. I am no judge of those wider arguments.)

Blaylock is particularly convincing on the well-publicized, apparently definitive, study conducted for the FDA on the safety of MSG and published in 1995. The report was widely considered a vindication of the Glutamate Association, a trade group of MSG producers, which has produced a steady stream of studies, many flawed, to demonstrate its safety. However, the FDA report, as Blaylock describes, was not an acquittal of MSG. The studies, say Blaylock and Olney, are carefully designed to show no neurotoxicity. The studies allow the FDA (and MSG apologists) to count up the studies and say 'most studies' show it's safe. This is quantity, not quality and hardlly valid scientifically.

Processing: MSG is the salt form (sodium added) of the naturally occuring amino acid glutamate - found in various foods - for example, in mushrooms, which is why they are so great in sauces and soups. The brain uses glutamate as a neurotransmitter - it excites the cells and that includes taste buds. If I understand correctly, in high concentrations the natural form is toxic too.

In soy bean processing, I understand why the modern industrial processing reduces the nutritional value of the food and the traditional processing (fermentation, thousands of years old) enhances its value to human health.

I haven't read enough about MSG to know how the manufactured version differs from the natural amino acid and whether the latter is inherently more dangerous, and don't propose to become an expert. I'd love to hear from those who are better-read.

Meanwhile I am happy to eat all the mushrooms I like and to avoid MSG. We all make our choices!

Thanks for the good discussion.

Best wishes, Nina

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One more UK comment I first read skeptics of the soy argument several years ago in the UK, in an excellent compilation newsletter of environment and health-related stories. Then called Environmental and Health News, now, I think, www.greenhealthwatch.com.

I then believed soy milk and other modern soy creations were health foods, and was startled to read otherwise.

Well done UK journos.

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"Soya" and "soy" refer to the same plant. Most of the soybeans grown in the US (about 3/4) are genetically engineered (almost all of this is Roundup-Ready soybeans). The rest are not genetically engineered and are still called soybeans.

All of the studies that I know of that purport to show that MSG is dangerous were done on rats. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but a typical experimental dose would be 4mg/g body weight for several days. For a 150-pound human, that would mean ingesting over half a pound of pure MSG for several days in a row. I have no doubt that this would cause ill effects. The dose makes the poison. Concluding from such an experiment that MSG should be avoided would be akin to noting that too much iron makes people sick and we should therefore avoid iron in our diet. In fact, the exact same thing happened to salt: it has long been known that megadoses of sodium chloride are harmful and that some people's blood pressure is salt-sensitive. This turned into a recommendation that everybody limit their salt consumption.

There is no difference between natural and added glutamate. I have a yogurt container full of MSG in my cupboard, and while I don't use it often, in judicious amounts in can subtly improve a variety of dishes.

Given the chaotic state of nutrition research, I think the best argument is this: the new soy products taste like shit. (I have an absolutely vivid memory of the first time I tasted soy milk. It will haunt me forever.) Even if they are better for you, which they may or may not be, is it worth adding a couple of years to your life if you have to eat shit?

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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All of the studies that I know of that purport to show that MSG is dangerous were done on rats.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but a typical experimental dose would be 4mg/g body weight for several days.  For a 150-pound human, that would mean ingesting over half a pound of pure MSG for several days in a row.  I have no doubt that this would cause ill effects.  The dose makes the poison.  Concluding from such an experiment that MSG should be avoided would be akin to noting that too much iron makes people sick and we should therefore avoid iron in our diet.  In fact, the exact same thing happened to salt:  it has long been known that megadoses of sodium chloride are harmful and that some people's blood pressure is salt-sensitive.  This turned into a recommendation that everybody limit their salt consumption.

Exactly. I think it's also important to note that you need to take a given study in its context. There is usually a whole body of literature that surrounds it. Science thrives on discourse and argument, but that means there will be more than one published opinion at any given time; the hopeful end result is some sort of consensus, of course. I'm not even talking about all those bullshit weird diet books out there full of pseudoscience that people believe just because someone has a couple of initials behind their name. They give those out to nearly anyone, and I should know.

Given the chaotic state of nutrition research, I think the best argument is this:  the new soy products taste like shit.  (I have an absolutely vivid memory of the first time I tasted soy milk.  It will haunt me forever.)  Even if they are better for you, which they may or may not be, is it worth adding a couple of years to your life if you have to eat shit?

Of course that's a great argument, but it's not the one that was used. I think it really destroys the credibility of the author, the editor and the site that publishes an article to base an argument on things stated as fact that are subjective opinions at best and downright bullshit at worst. I also think it's a total cop-out to claim that it's ok because the end point is right and it makes vegans look silly (honestly, do they need much help in that department?).

As for soya milk tasting like shit, I happen to love a fresh bowl of soya milk with yew char kway. Or doufu fa steamed in a big bamboo bucket, but I don't pretend that it tastes like cow milk or custard made from cow milk. Soft tofu steamed with fresh shrimp paste on top? A thing of beauty. But now we're in the realm on subjective opinion...

regards,

trillium

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Like Ruth Gordon's "chocolate mouse" in "Rosemary's Baby," soy milk has a chalky undertaste. I will never knowingly put that crap in my mouth again.

"Save Donald Duck and Fuck Wolfgang Puck."

-- State Senator John Burton, joking about

how the bill to ban production of foie gras in

California was summarized for signing by

Gov. Schwarzenegger.

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What I don't understand is that I like tofu, including soft tofu, but I can't stand the taste of soy milk. Does anyone else find this to be true?

I'm not a milk drinker, so it's not like I'm comparing the two. Or maybe that's it, I don't like milk, I don't like soy milk...

I was familiar with the info in the story before, and I am ambivalent. I think that soy is a food to be used in moderation, not a miracle substance we should design our diet to consume as much as we can of it, nor a poison to be avoided. Americans have the unfortunate tendency to say, "A little X good, more X better, best of all to consume mass quantities." An acquaintance of mine on a trip to Spain snacked on cases of American breakfast cereal, when the local food was so good and cheap.

Vegetable oil in general (aside from evoo) is a brand new component in the human diet. Nobody ate quantities of it before we had factories. We didn't evolve on it. Why would we be adapted to utilize it?

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The raw-foodists will point out that we didn't evolve eating cooked food either, but this isn't going to make me give up bread.

In Spain, isn't the motto "A little ham good, a lot of ham better"?

The Planck article sounds to me like the work of a person desperately searching for answers. You hear the tone a lot, in many different contexts. I'm not accusing Planck of being any of these things, but you often hear it from recovering addicts and from people with debilitating diseases. It's the mind grasping for certainty.

There's a guy who does infomercials claiming that all human diseases are caused by calcium deficiency, and if you order his calcium supplements, you will enjoy perfect health forever. Wouldn't it be awesome if this were true? I don't believe him, but I understand why people do.

The real story of human nutrition, like everything else about human life, is complicated. I often argue that Americans are obese because of cars. Some people chalk it up to carbohydrates, or trans fats. Surely we're all at least partly wrong.

Along with the drive to blame a variety of problems on a single cause is the need to see any given thing as unequivocally good or bad. What if soy is good for you and bad for you at the same time? What if it protects against certain diseases and raises your risk for others? What if all foods are like that? It would be mud in the eye of people looking for a quick fix, but would it really be a surprise, given what you know about the pros and cons of everything else in modern life?

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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What I don't understand is that I like tofu, including soft tofu, but I can't stand the taste of soy milk. Does anyone else find this to be true?

Yes, yes. Tofu I'll gladly eat, but soy milk sets my teeth on edge just typing the words!

Almond milk, on the other hand, is quite tasty . . .

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What has not been mentioned is that almost all US (but not UK) soy is made from genetically modified material, with unknown long-term effects for the consumer and the environment and us all.

Similarly corn syrup

Edited by jackal10 (log)
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What has not been mentioned is that almost all US (but not UK) soy is made from genetically modified material, with unknown long-term effects for the consumer and the environment and us all.

Similarly corn syrup

Of course this could be claimed of any hybrid veggie over the last 5000 years. The only long term effect that can be proven about anything is that no matter how careful anyone can be (The illogic of proving anything 100% safe seems to elude these folk) is that we are all going to die. The fact that the lifespan of the western world continues to lengthen surely must perplex and annoy those perpetuating all these doomsday scenarios.

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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Of course this could be claimed of any hybrid veggie over the last 5000 years.

This is probably not the forum to debate the merits or otherwise of GM foods.

However the process is very different from hybridisation or selective breeding. Selective breeding does not cross species barriers, or insert fish or mamalian genes into plants.

Edited by jackal10 (log)
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Can you give an example of fish or mammalian genes inserted into plants?

The "Mamster Lily."

I have a serious question to ask: Does anybody here, besides Trillum, think that I should have rejected Nina Planck's article? Or do most believe that, on balance, despite what I do consider to be some flaws in the way the argument is presented, it was something that deserved to be published? Did everybody catch the part in the bio at the end about how HarperCollins is publishing a book-length version of much the same thesis that Nina Planck has been presenting (and will continue to present) in the pieces we're publishing in The Daily Gullet? Also, is anybody under the impression that it represents the viewpoint of anybody but its author?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I find that an easy question to answer. Of course you should have published it.

Scientific truth (alluded to by trillium) is a fantasy. We were told the scientific truth about BSE and discovered that half the scientists were liars and the other half incompetent. Science is as much about interpretation as about "fact" and the Planck article contains, I would guess, no more inaccurate interpretations than the soy lobby pronouncements on their product, or the GM pronouncements on theirs, or the tobacco industry on theirs.

It might be a good idea to print a health warning at the head of the Planck article. Like "People who expect certainty in life may find parts of this article worrisome". :smile:

Edited by macrosan (log)
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Can you give an example of fish or mammalian genes inserted into plants?

Various systems (admittedly mostly yeasts and bacteria, but I believe also grass) have been modified to secrete things like insulin and drugs. I understand the origin of glyphosate immunity in soy and other plants is derived from a fish gene.

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I have a serious question to ask: Does anybody here, besides Trillum, think that I should have rejected Nina Planck's article? Or do most believe that, on balance, despite what I do consider to be some flaws in the way the argument is presented, it was something that deserved to be published? Did everybody catch the part in the bio at the end about how HarperCollins is publishing a book-length version of much the same thesis that Nina Planck has been presenting (and will continue to present) in the pieces we're publishing in The Daily Gullet? Also, is anybody under the impression that it represents the viewpoint of anybody but its author?

It would have been helpful to see some sources, because some of her claims are controversial. I wouldn't necessarily assume that her views reflect those of the site owners, but some people might. The article certainly deserved to be published.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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I have a serious question to ask: Does anybody here, besides Trillum, think that I should have rejected Nina Planck's article? Or do most believe that, on balance, despite what I do consider to be some flaws in the way the argument is presented, it was something that deserved to be published? Did everybody catch the part in the bio at the end about how HarperCollins is publishing a book-length version of much the same thesis that Nina Planck has been presenting (and will continue to present) in the pieces we're publishing in The Daily Gullet? Also, is anybody under the impression that it represents the viewpoint of anybody but its author?

Fat Guy:

Nina Planck's article deserved publication.

I did indeed note in the bio section that HarperCollins intends to release a book-length version; I also read the same information at the end of the recently-run "Stone Soup" article.

And I suffered no illusions that the viewpoint was representative of anyone other than Nina.

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I'm glad you printed it.

macrosan, do you really believe scientific truth is a fantasy, or is this just something you say to spark conversation? Scientists make mistakes. Some scientists (like some journalists, some lawyers, some bureaucrats) are corrupt. I work around scientists at a large research university, however, and above all I would describe them as careful. They're careful in their laboratory work and even more careful to avoid making pronouncements without making very clear what they don't know. If you read any scientific paper in a reputable journal--and I've said this before--you'll find the description of an experiment (with enough detail for you to recreate the experiment), the results, and an interpretation of the results with some possible explanations of why the experiment turned out the way it did. That's how you look for truth.

Usually this process goes on for years and years with only cloudy understanding of what's really going on. That makes a terrible news story. Scientific journals are great sleep aids. So it's common for the press to report that "scientists discovered X" as if it's now unassailable truth. Some scientists play into this. Many don't.

So what would a responsible story about soy look like? It would be much less certain than anything you'd see from an anti-soy group or the soy lobby. It's hard for me to imagine any reasonable person looking at the experiments and studies that have been done on soy so far and forming a firm opinion that soy is either a panacea or a poison. (Perhaps this is just my bias, though.) So we agree, macrosan, that people who expect much certainty in their lives should expect repeated disappointment. But say you're an anti-soy person, like an employee of the Weston A. Price foundation. Is there anything in the Planck article that would shake your certainty? Doesn't it read a bit like a press release? Would you guess from reading the article that the "soap-like emulsifier" used to make margarine is lecithin, the same emulsifier found in egg yolks?

Scientific truth is a fantasy? Suppose your doctor told you that he thought casts were a conspiracy by the plaster industry and that the best way to heal a broken arm was to give it as much exercise as possible. Would you argue that maybe he's got a point? What could you have possibly meant, then?

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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It would have been helpful to see some sources

The particular editor on this project (I'm on every project, but we usually assign someone else, as we did here, to work more closely with the author's text) did ask for references, and as a result the ones at the end of the story were added. Obviously, those references do not contain documentation of every single point in the article. We're not a scientific journal, however, and we don't think it would be necessary to ask for footnotes or point-by-point citations. Actually, according to our style guide, if an author did submit an article to us with footnotes, we'd simply leave them out or ask that the most important ones be incorporated in the text and the rest left out.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Can you give an example of fish or mammalian genes inserted into plants?

Various systems (admittedly mostly yeasts and bacteria, but I believe also grass) have been modified to secrete things like insulin and drugs. I understand the origin of glyphosate immunity in soy and other plants is derived from a fish gene.

Problem is that many folks don't understand what genes are or how they influence the resulting organism. Genes are simply snippets of molecules whose effects on living organizms are just in recent decades being worked out. If there is a gene present in an arctic fish that results in an ability to resist freezing, and that gene when inserted into the genetic makup of a cotton plant enables it to withstand a frost it is technically niether a "fish" gene or a "cotton" gene, it is an antifreeze gene. It must be understood that there is nothing in genetic material that differentiates between genes of different plants, animals or the species within. DNA is DNA.

Such precise manipulations of specific genetic material have much more predictable results than the mass genetic manipulation of standard hybridization. What many people can't seem to work past is that with all the hand wringing there has yet to be, in 20 years of genetic manipulation, a single example to point at where GM has resulted in harm to anything except the starvation of those in 3rd world countries denied their benefits. It's always "well, it could have adverse effects in the future..." Hell, life has adverse effects. We all die!

I seem to recall stories in the media of the early 19th century concerned with the advent of trains and trolleys since it was common knowledge among scientists of the day that the human body subjected to speeds above 20mph would suffocate.

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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What many people can't seem to work past is that with all the hand wringing there has yet to be, in 20 years of genetic manipulation, a single example to point at where GM has resulted in harm to anything except the starvation of those in 3rd world countries denied their benefits.

Its been shown, for example, that the pollen of GM but not ordinary oil seed is poisonous to various species of butterflies that use it as a seed plant. However the stuff has just not been around long enough to say with any certainty that it is safe to indiscriminately release into the wild. Thats why various governments are still conducting tests, so far without definite conclusion.

I, for one, will not knowingly eat GM foods where I can avoid it.

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macrosan, do you really believe scientific truth is a fantasy, or is this just something you say to spark conversation?

Matthew, I certainly think that the version of "truth" that many scientists proffer as such is indeed fantasy. I ahve no problems with the many scientists who experiment and theorize, and then say things like "On balance, to the best of our limited knowledge, and pending further study, it does appear that ...". What I object to is scientists who say "This is so because we have conclusively proven it so". Note that the latter style of comment was exactly wehat we in Britain got on the subject of BSE.

I'm saying that the very idea that science derives truth is a fantasy.

Of course there do turn out to be (for the time being at least) some scientific truths in the pure sciences, like maybe the Law of Relativity or Hooke's Law. But in the natural sciences, there is so much interpretation of experimentation required that "truth" is hard to come by, especially when couched in such non-scientific terms as "this is good for you" or "there is no evidence that smoking causes cancer". OK, that last one is a cheap shot, but that is indeed what some scientists were saying as long ago as 1994 !!!!

On the question "Am I trying to spark conversation", it is fair to say that I am to some extent playing devil's advocate. I would dread the thought that scientists stopped trying to push back the boundaries of knowledge. I am not opposed to science as a field of important human endeavour. I just would like scientists to acknowledge their fallibility, and to keep reminding us laymen of how fallible they can be.

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