For several decades now, soy milk has been aggressively marketed as a health food with everything short of a soy mustache campaign. Even so, soy milk was long rejected by consumers as nothing more than a poor tasting imitation drink. That all began to change when Silk put its products in gable-top cartons right next to dairy products in the refrigerated sections of health food stores and supermarkets. The result was sales of soy milks jumped from $600 million in 2001 to almost $1 billion by 2005. Then, to the great disappointment of the soy industry, sales plateaued and dipped to around $993 million in 2009.
The soy industry primarily blamed competing non-dairy products such as almond and rice milk and rice milk for this development. It also blamed negative media attention about the health risks of soy, though it never mentioned the Weston A. Price Foundation or my book The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, by name.
Meanwhile, the soy industry continues to market its product as healthy, traditional and consumed by long-lived Asians for thousands of years.
Soy milk drinkers might be startled to learn that the Chinese did not traditionally value soy milk. For most of its history, soy milk was nothing more than a step in the tofu-making process. The earliest reference to soy milk as a beverage appears in 1866, and by the 1920s and 1930s, soy milk was popular as an occasional drink served to the elderly and often mixed with shrimp or egg yolk. Credit for inventing a commercially feasible method to manufacture soy milk goes to Harry Miller, an American-born Seventh Day Adventist physician and missionary. Called the “Albert Schweitzer of China,” he built fifteen hospitals there and developed the soy beverage not for Americans, but for the Chinese.
Dr. Miller also found that soy milk was not traditional in Japan. In a 1959 article for Soybean Digest entitled “Why Japan needs Soy Milk,” he described seven months spent as a surgeon and physician at the Tokyo Sanitarium and Hospital and how his idea of a soybean beverage and milk from the soybean for soups and cooking was something “altogether new.” After setting up a pilot plant to make soy milk, soy cream, soy ice cream and a soy spread, he came up with the idea “of such additions to be made to the tofu plants.”
Despite Dr. Miller’s efforts, the Japanese found the flavor and odor of soy milk undesirable and soy milk consumption did not pick up until the late 1970s when the soy industry began advertising soy milk as a “healthful, pick-me-up ‘energy drink’ for stressed workers and business people.”
Dr. Miller and his son Willis established the first soy dairy in Shanghai in 1939, but never had a chance to find out how it would succeed. Within months Japan invaded China, bombed the factory and sent the Millers packing to Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where they began converting heathen Americans to the virtues of soy milk. Later in life he continued his work in China, Taiwan, India. Dr. Miller’s medical practice, included a specialty in goiter surgery, an interesting choice given current knowledge about soy’s damaging effects on the thyroid gland.
It is surprising but true that the very first soy dairy was not even founded in Asia, but northwest of Paris in 1910 by Li Yu-Ying, a Chinese citizen, biologist and engineer.
MILKING THE BEAN
The old-fashioned soy milk-making process begins with a long, relaxing soak. The softened beans are then ground on a stone grinder, using massive amounts of water. The mush goes into a cloth bag, is placed under a heavy rock, and pressed and squeezed until most of the liquid runs out. The soy paste is then boiled in fresh water. Large amounts of filthy scum rise to the surface and are carefully removed.
The modern method is faster, cheaper–and retains the scum. It speeds up the presoaking phase with the use of an alkaline solution, skips the squeezing and skimming steps, uses common tap water, and cooks the soy paste in a pressure cooker. The speed comes at a cost: the high pH of the soaking solution followed by pressure cooking destroys key nutrients, including vitamins and the sulfur-containing amino acids. The process also decreases the quality of the amino acid lysine and may produce a toxin, lysinoalanine. Although levels of lysinoalanine in soy milk are low, valid safety concerns remain.
Taste, not nutrition, is what most concerns the soy industry. As Peter Golbitz, President of Soyatech in Bar Harbor, Maine, put it, more than a decade ago, “The challenge for the soy industry has been identifying and inactivating the components primarily responsible for the undesirable beany flavor, aroma and aftertaste in soy milk.” The guilty party is the enzyme lipoxygenase, which oxidizes the polyunsaturated fatty acids in soy, causing the “beaniness” and rancidity. The industry’s attempted solutions have included high heat; pressure cooking and replacement of the traditional presoaking with a fast blanch in an alkaline solution of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Major manufacturers have even “offed” the off flavors using a deodorizing process similar to that in oil refining, which involves passing cooked soy milk through a vacuum pan at extremely high temperatures.
To cover up any “beaniness” that remains, processors bring out the sweeteners and flavorings. Almost all commercially sold soy milks contain barley malt, brown rice syrup, raw cane crystals or some other form of sugar. The higher the sugar content, the higher the acceptability among consumers. Flavors such as “plain” or “original” are almost always sweetened, although perceived by many consumers as unsweetened. Even so, a panel of professional “sensory analysts” at the Arthur D. Little Company evaluated the taste, color, viscosity, balance, fullness, bitterness and aftertaste of all the leading soy beverages and found them wanting. The company helps the processed food industry “translate the voice of the consumer into product specifications.” The panel ruled that soy milk “does not currently meet consumer standards for flavor quality and flavor consistency, and will not capture the mass market until vast improvements are made.”
The worst problems were: the darker, dirty-looking color of some brands of soy milk (compared to the white of dairy milk); chalky mouth feel; musty or burnt protein odors; and, beany and bitter aftertastes. None of the soy milks evaluated came close to matching the flavor quality of dairy milk, though vanilla-flavored soy milks fared best. Although consumers perceive refrigerated soy products as fresher and better, these products did not score any higher than the shelf-stable versions in the taste tests.
Eliminating the aftertaste in soy milk poses the biggest challenge. The undesirable sour, bitter and astringent characteristics come from oxidized phospholipids (rancid lecithin), oxidized fatty acids (rancid soy oil), the anti-nutrients called saponins and the soy estrogens known as isoflavones. The last are so bitter and astringent that they produce dry mouth. This has put the soy industry into a quandary. The only way it can make its soy milk please consumers is to remove some of the very toxins that it has assiduously promoted as cancer preventing and cholesterol lowering. The opportunity to profit from selling both the soy milk and bottles of isoflavone supplements (that can be swallowed rather than tasted) will surely prevail.
Low fat–or “lite”–soy milks are made with soy protein isolate (SPI), not the full-fat soybean. To improve both color and texture, manufacturers work with numerous additive designed to handle the color-texture and taste problems. Because soy milk made with SPI needs at least some oil to provide creaminess, including adding back some oil — often canola oil because its perceived as “healthy” — is added for creaminess.
Most soy milks are also fortified with calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals inadequately represented in soybeans, and stabilized with emulsifiers. This has been true at least since 1931 when a Seventh Day Adventist company fortified soy milk with calcium.
Even in health-food store foods, these added supplements are cheap, mass-produced products. The soy milk industry puts vitamin D2 in soy milk, even though the dairy industry quietly stopped adding this form of the vitamin years ago. Although any form of vitamin D helps people meet their RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances), D2 has been linked to hyperactivity, coronary heart disease and allergic reactions. D2 also appears in almond, rice and the other udder alternatives in order for those products to appeal to vegans.
MAKING IT AT HOME
Homemade soy milk would appear to be fresher, cleaner and safer than readymade packaged brews. But it’s “buyer beware” when it comes to some of the speedy new machines on the market. Robert Cohen — the”Not Milk Man” who has assertively publicized the health dangers of commercial dairy products — has a soy milk machine known as the SoyToy on the market. Ignoring centuries of accrued wisdom, Cohen boasts that his machine makes soy milk in only 25 minutes and does not require presoaked beans. Soy milk that has not been properly soaked, skimmed and cooked at length is “all natural” all right, and guaranteed to deliver a full load of soybean’s antinutrients. That could mean digestive distress, gas and mineral malabsorption.
This article is excerpted from Chapter 6 of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, where full citations can be found. The chapter also includes a discussion of soy cheese, soy yogurt and soy ice cream.