Miracle Food Flop

The new stink about soy

By Jennifer Ward

Miracle Food Flop

I’ve got a bone to pick with vegetarianism. Though it can be a highly admirable lifestyle for ethical and health reasons, I’m disappointed by the fake meat phenomenon sweeping veggie-land.

Meatless breakfast sausages and other dietary oxymorons are sprouting up everywhere. About six months ago, Wegmans created an aisle-long refrigerated section for products like those made by Morningstar and Boca, two leading manufacturers of fake meats. Even commercial grocers like P&C and Price Chopper now stock Boca Meatless Chik’n Patties and VegiDeli Frankfurters.

Today’s varieties of vegetarian meat surpass the floppy veggie dogs I knew. They are fast, easy, and prettier than raw flesh piled on Styrofoam. But what exactly are we eating?

The ingredients for fleshy fakery are, not surprisingly, fake. Most products contain some combination of isolated soy powder, acid-treated gluten, xanthan gum, and carrageenan (which comes from algae or seaweed) to name a few. Because their packages feature cartoon suns and farmers’ fields, we’re all convinced these science projects are actually food. But on closer inspection, they seem inedible. Soy wears the crown in the vegetarian protein empire. But for every heart-healthy label, there’s a skeptical scientist who argues that soy’s protein quality to its phytoestrogens to its mineral-blocking phytates might be worse for us than we’re told.

For every endorsement of soy starting with “studies suggest,” there’s an indictment that begins the same way. Before the Food and Drug Administration approved soy in 1999, two doctors from the administration called it a “two-edged sword” due to its isoflavones that increased estrogen levels in the human body. “People’s mentality with soy is that if a little is good, more must be better,” said Sudha Raj, a nutrition professor at Syracuse University. “We like to look to other cultures that eat soy and remark how healthy they are, but the truth is they are eating smaller quantities and processing it very differently than we do.”

It’s really strange that soy can be so quickly repackaged and re-engineered to imitate the food group its chief consumers abhor. The entry for meatless drumsticks on www.healthy-eating.com brags that they are “so much like chicken they even have skin.” Yum.

Local chef Debra Sorrentino suggested that a rising demand for convenience has pushed the trend toward packaged foods. “People always opt for easy,” she said. “They’re patronizing the products that are available instead of demanding higher quality.”

That’s my real beef. It’s not the animal rights folks who irk me, but the veg-head types who praise vegetarianism and then live on these processed products.

Dana Jacobi, a spokesperson for the Soyfoods Association of North America and the author of the cookbook The Joy of Soy, confirmed that soy bigwigs promote their products’ health benefits “purely for profit.”

So what’s a vegetarian or health nut to do? Well-known soy researcher Mark Messina recommends two servings of traditional soy foods like edamame, miso, or tempeh per day. This amount provides 15 grams of soy protein and a safe 50 milligrams of isoflavones. Common single-serving amounts of soy include half a cup of tofu, half a cup of roasted soy nuts, or eight ounces of soy milk.

While health food marketers are trying to convince us it’s a prime time to have our meat and not eat it too, they’re shoving junk food down our throats in myriad link-and-patty form. It all gets under my skin, which isn’t made of edible plastic composite. At least, not yet.

CultureThe Editors