Tremendous growth in organic soy foods has occurred over the last two decades as consumers seek healthy dietary protein sources. Many companies touting “natural” or “organic” soy brands have found favor in the supermarket. A new report, from The Cornucopia Institute, lifts the veil on some of these companies, exposing widespread importation of soybeans from China and the use of toxic chemicals to process soy foods labeled as “natural.”
The report, Beyond the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry, and an accompanying scorecard rating organic brands, separates industry heroes — who have gone out of their way to connect with domestic farmers — from agribusinesses exploiting consumer trust.
“Importing Chinese soybeans or contributing to the loss of rain forests by shipping in commodities from Brazil just flat-out contradicts the working definition of organic agriculture,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
Through a nationwide survey of the industry, onsite farm, and processor visits, plus reviews of import data, Cornucopia assembled a soybean foods rating system respecting the fundamental tenets of organics.
“The report’s good news is that consumers can easily find, normally without paying any premium, organic soy foods that truly meet their expectations,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, a Cornucopia researcher and primary author of the report.
One company that had an excellent opportunity to meet consumer expectations by supporting the growth of organic acreage in North America was Dean Foods, makers of the industry’s leading soymilk, Silk. Instead, after buying the Silk brand, Dean Foods quit purchasing most of their soybeans from American family farmers and switched its primary sourcing to China.
“White Wave (Dean’s marketing division for Silk and Horizon organic milk) had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production, but what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture,” said Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative.
Dean has now quietly abandoned organic soybeans in most of the Silk product line, switching to even cheaper conventional soybeans without lowering consumer pricing.
Meanwhile, highly committed companies like Eden Foods, Small Planet Tofu, and Vermont Soy work directly with North American organic farmers.
“We hope consumers will use Cornucopia’s soy scorecard to reward in the marketplace the top-rated companies that nurture relationships with American organic farmers,” noted Kastel.
Behind the Bean also exposes the natural soy industry’s “dirty little secret”: its widespread use of the toxic solvent hexane. Conventional soybeans are bathed in hexane by food processors seeking to separate soy oil from the protein and fiber of the beans. It is banned in organics. Hexane, a neurotoxic chemical, poses serious occupational hazards to workers, is an environmental air pollutant, and can contaminate food.