Tremendous growth in the organic soy foods industry has occurred over the last two decades as consumers seek healthy dietary alternative sources of protein. Many companies touting their "natural" or "organic" soy brands have found favor in the supermarket. A new report, released this week by 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 ratings scorecard of organic brands, separates industry heroes—who have gone out of their way to connect with domestic farmers—from agribusinesses that are exploiting the trust of consumers.
Part of the meteoric rise in organic food sales has been built on the expectation from consumers that organic foods support a more environmentally sound form of agriculture and one that financially rewards family farmers through their patronage. "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 rating system aimed at empowering consumers and wholesale buyers with the knowledge necessary to support brands that respect the fundamental tenets of organics.
"The good news in this report is that consumers can easily find, normally without paying any premium, organic soy foods that truly meet their expectations," said Charlotte Vallaeys, a researcher at Cornucopia and the 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 their primary sourcing to China, accordin to the report. This cost-cutting move helped them build their commanding soy milk market share using soybeans of questionable organic certification from China.
“White Wave (the operating division of Dean Foods that markets 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.
And now Dean, the $11 billion agribusiness behemoth and the nation's largest dairy concern, has quietly abandoned organic soybeans in most of the Silk product line, switching to even cheaper conventional soybeans without changing UPC codes for retailers or lowering pricing to consumers.
After reports from cooperative and independent natural foods retailers around the country Cornucopia visited a Whole Foods store in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin and found only one of 25 Silk soymilk products was organic. "This is a radical departure by a brand that was widely viewed as an organic market pioneer," lamented Kastel.
Cornucopia's Vallaeys said: "Health conscious shoppers should no longer associate Silk with organic, and should seek the green USDA Certified Organic seal when purchasing soy products.”
Meanwhile, highly committed companies like Eden Foods, one of the country's largest organic soy foods producers, Small Planet Tofu, and Vermont Soy work directly with North American organic farmers.
“The top-rated companies that nurture relationships with American organic farmers should be rewarded in the marketplace. We hope that organic consumers will use Cornucopia’s soy scorecard when deciding which organic soy foods to buy,” said Kastel.
Some soy food makers that did not participate in the scorecard study may have been hesitant to share their sourcing information because they also buy organic soybeans from China. “Their reluctance to disclose their sourcing information makes sense, given the USDA’s weak oversight of certifying agents working in China,” noted Kastel.
The USDA waited five years before sending auditors to China to examine the practices of that country’s certifying agents. And even when in China, the USDA’s auditors visited only two farms in the entire country. On these two farms, they found multiple noncompliances with U.S. organic standards. USDA auditors also discovered that Chinese-based organic certifying agents did not always provide a translated copy of the U.S. standards to clients who apply for organic certification.
The Chinese findings support concerns that American farmers have raised for years, which is that organic imports from China may not always be held to the same strict standards as American crops. They also raise questions about whether Chinese farmers are adequately informed about the USDA organic standards and requirements.
“If the reputation of organic food is impugned through illegal and fraudulent activities in China, and an incompetent level of oversight by the USDA, it will be the domestic farmers and entrepreneurs that built this industry who will be harmed,” added Kastel.
Hexane: The Dirty Little Secret of the Natural Soy Foods Industry
Behind the Bean also exposes the natural soy industry’s “dirty little secret”: its widespread use of the chemical solvent hexane. Hexane is used to process nearly all conventional soy protein ingredients and edible oils and is prohibited when processing organic foods.
Soybeans are bathed in hexane by food processors seeking to separate soy oil from the protein and fiber of the beans. It is a cost-effective and highly efficient method for concentrating high-protein isolates. But hexane is also a neurotoxic chemical that poses serious occupational hazards to workers, is an environmental air pollutant, and can contaminate food, the report said.
Residue tests reveal that small amounts of hexane can and do appear in ingredients processed with the toxic chemical. The government does not require that companies test for hexane residues before selling foods to consumers, including soy-based infant formula.
"Consumers who are concerned with the purity and healthfulness of their food should continue to seek out organic alternatives as part of their diet and support the many high-integrity brands outlined in our study," Vallaeys stated.
The full Cornucopia Institute report, or an executive summary, including the scorecard of organic soy brands, can be found at
the link below.