Avoiding soy is complicated by its prevalence in processed foods, the food industry, and labeling laws.
ne morning three years ago, I drank soy milk and immediately felt as though I had swallowed hot sand and touched poison ivy. Without realizing it, I had become allergic to soy. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I thought I could just avoid soy milk and soy sauce. How wrong I was. I soon discovered that soy was in the majority of processed foods: energy bars (the most profitable soy product, with $1.6 billion in sales in 2013), pasta, vitamin supplements, cosmetics, and simple things such as chewing gum.
Soy is among the eight deadliest food allergens, but you’d never know it when common food industry allergens are discussed.
I am not alone. Although statistics on the numbers of adults with soy allergies are not readily available, it’s estimated that 0.4 percent of children in the United States have soy allergies. Many children who are allergic to soy have multiple food allergies. According to a Johns Hopkins Children’s Center study, most of these children will overcome their soy allergies by age 10 or beyond. About 10 to 15 percent of people with peanut allergy also have soy allergy. I am one of those floating in the black hole of adult soy allergy.
In late 1992, a severely peanut-allergic girl in Sweden, who had no previous allergic reactions to soy, died of an asthma attack after eating a hamburger that contained just 2.2 percent soy protein. Following her death, a team of Swedish researchers studied 61 cases of severe food reactions. Five were fatal, with four caused by soy allergies. The researchers concluded that “Soy has probably been underestimated as a cause of food anaphylaxis. Those at risk seem to be young people with asthma and peanut allergy so severe that they notice symptoms after indirect contact.”
As an ingredient, soy is very, very difficult to avoid, due to the many names used for its different forms. On the list of ingredients in processed food, soy could be referred to as textured vegetable protein (TVP), lecithin, monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, protein, and protein isolates, among others.
Under U.S. labeling laws, any packaged food product that contains soy as an ingredient must list “soy” in its label. Yet highly refined oils, including soy oil, are exempt because almost all the allergenic protein is eliminated in the processing. In 2007, Missouri-based international soy ingredients supplier Solae LLC successfully petitioned the FDA to exempt soy lecithin from the food allergen labeling requirement. Solae cites the common argument that the dose of soy protein required to elicit an allergic response is much higher than that of other allergens. It’s important to note that Solae ingredients are studied in more than 80 percent of all clinical research on soy protein, and many of the studies supporting the FDA-approved health claim on soy are based on research using Solae soy proteins.
For people like me, however, very low levels of soy lecithin in a food product can cause allergies—levels much lower than the FDA requires for labeling. Some of us must avoid all forms of soy. Is it okay to mislead us about a product’s soy content just because one soy-producing company studied its product and found it to be safe? The obvious conflict of interest notwithstanding, the study’s conclusions and resulting FDA requirements are dishonest and potentially lethal.
I write this from a point of privilege—between my middle class problems, I have the time and the space and presence of mind to educate myself on what options exist for me beyond soy. Although living in New York is expensive and the co-op gardens can only sustain a few of us, I can scout for places to buy cheaper fresh ingredients to make my own salad dressing, lotion, shampoo, and Chinese food minus the soy sauce. I might even fantasize about writing a soy-free recipe book and getting a television deal. I’m in a much better place than the parent or adult who has no access to healthcare or a choice of what to eat.
Talking about soy allergy is made even more difficult because of the big business surrounding the production of soy.
Farmers in more than 30 states grow soybeans, making soy the United States’ second largest crop in cash sales and its most valuable crop export. In 2009, the total crop value exceeded $31.7 billion, according to the American Soybean Association. In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a health claim that “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” This announcement was more good news for the soy foods industry. From 1992 to 2013, the sale of soy foods in the U.S. skyrocketed—from $300 million to $4.5 billion.
Most soybeans grown in the U.S. (91 percent) are genetically engineered to allow farmers to use large amounts of herbicides. It’s not clear if genetic engineering increases the risk of soy allergy, but there are many discussions among health advocates revolving around this. My grandmother is a farmer in Kenya. She grows everything from tea to soy. Her home is one of my favorite places to visit—I always joke that if I could get reliable WiFi in her house, it would be my favorite place in the world. As a child, I loved the soya beverage she made me every morning when I visited; I remember its smell and taste. I also recall that many conversations during our visits centered around the evolving food market, given Kenya’s heavy dependence on food exports such as tea and coffee. Today, in her 80s, she grapples with genetic engineering (even though she might not know the word itself), but to stay competitive in the agriculture business, she has had to acquiesce to the shifting trends with some crops. So I get it.
But to disregard the possible dangers that GE/GM foods pose, or to dismiss certain studies because it’s convenient for big business, is unjust to the people these industries purport to serve or feed. Would the food industry rather kill us softly than lose a small amount of sales? What is there to be afraid of if the soy allergy population is allegedly so miniscule? Wouldn’t that cause little or no dent in the mighty soy market?
Soy marketers might fear that soy will go the route of milk, which would be ironic given that soy is a milk substitute. (I started to drink soy milk because I had developed lactose intolerance.) Soy is also used as a cheap meat substitute, with unpredictable health consequences. Consider the lawsuits filed by Florida and Illinois prison inmates who complained that the excessive soy-based food the prison kitchen was serving was causing them health problems. With unclear or limited research on the benefits or harms of soy, it won’t be too long before the issue rises to the surface—after all, you can’t stop a tide from rising unless you can tame the undercurrent. Already there are reports that almond milk far outsold soy milk in 2013.
We know that excessive consumption of fast foods is bad, but many people still eat too much fast food. People will eat whatever they deem fit for them and within their budget. Similarly, educating the public on the health risks of soy consumption (with corresponding research, of course) will provide much-needed information without harming the $4 billion U.S. soy products market.
The dangers of soy allergies are different than the consequences of eating too much fast food. Those who are really allergic to soy are going to avoid it no matter what. Why let those of us who truly suffer from soy allergies continue to bear the pain and discomfort of eating food with hidden soy? Calling soy by another name doesn’t change the fact that it’s soy. How many people must die or suffer asphyxiation before we recognize something as dangerous? For those of us floating in this soy allergy black hole, the FDA’s and soy industry’s disregard for our problems is like being told, “It’s just a little soy. What’s a tummy ache or an itch or three hives on your face?” It hurts us, it lowers our productivity, and it costs us money.
Given the fact that peanut allergies have escalated over the years, even with advocacy groups and awareness campaigns, the number of people with soy allergies may also increase. Should we wait until that happens? What about populations that have no access to this information or who have no healthcare or resources to explore their allergies?
There’s much more to learn about soy allergies, and given the healthcare costs involved, this should be a priority. According to a recent paper, it is critical for physicians to be able to distinguish between food intolerances and immune-mediated reactions, since the latter may be life threatening and require a different strategy. “The impact that the label ‘food allergy’ has on quality of life is not inconsequential—diligently reading all food labels, avoiding restaurants, inability to participate in birthday parties or school activities for fear of death can have familial and social repercussions.”
Simpler labeling on food products that contain any form of soy would be a great first step. Some companies already do this. But if you look at the majority of energy bars, for instance, you have to read the fine print and be aware of the many names for soy to determine if they’re safe to eat. Why don’t we make it standard in the industry to simply say “contains soy” and trust the public to make a choice?