A history of soy

The soy/soya bean is one of the most utilised and versatile foods available on the Earth. It’s arguably one of the most important foodstuffs in the vegan diet too, and few others can boast such a rich and interesting history. It has been hailed as a superfood, and also shunned as being toxic. Although I can’t think of any other food which has been made into a car…

The soya bean is most commonly associated with Eastern Asian food. Countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand are often viewed as the main consumers of soya beans, and indeed the earliest documented usage of soya beans is in Chinese food and medicine. It was also a key industrial tool, as fields were often cultivated using soya bean crops prior to planting other crops, due to the root structure of soya. Soya beans spread to other countries around Eastern Asia, and there is evidence of use of soy milk and tofu dating back to the first couple of centuries AD.

George Washington Carver

Soya beans first ventured into the US in 1765 with Samuel Bowen. Having visited China, Bowen began growing soya on US soil. Two thousand years after China, America’s George Washington Carver discovered the valuable protein and oil content of soya, and its benefits in crop production. William Morse then founded the American Soybean Association, an organisation that still exists today. He poured a lot of effort into studying soy, with the hope of America achieving the position of the dominant soy growing country of the world (which it has achieved, now growing over 80 million tonnes of the stuff per year).

However, it was Henry Ford who revolutionised the use of the soya bean. Spending $1,250,000 on research in the early 1930s, Ford recognised soy’s versatility. His research resulted in Ford cars using soya in its paint, plastics, and shock absorbers at one point, resulting in around 60 pounds of soy going into each car that Ford created by 1935. He even created the first (and quite possibly only) Soybean Car – made almost entirely out of plastics derived from soya. He also developed products such as soy milk, soy whipping cream, and soy ice cream (which leaves me wondering why, if this happened in the 1930s/40s, is it so hard to get hold of decent soy ice cream?)

The soybean car. And I thought tofu was pretty amazing.

Anyway, nowadays the soya bean is used in a huge variety of foods. It has had significant issues with GM production, although regulations are in the process of becoming. Fifteen years ago only 8% of all soybeans used had been genetically modified, whereas last year this number was around 93%. Many companies which produce soy for human consumption are now going out of their way to produce and/or use organic soya beans though, and avoiding the genetically modified strains (for example, the UK’s premier producer of soya products, Alpro).

Unfortunately, the main proportion of soya that is produced is used as animal feed for battery farmed animals. Whilst not necessarily natural to their diet, it contains large amounts of protein and is cheap to produce, hence it has become one of the primary foods for animals used for meat. A common anti-vegan argument is that soya bean growth is very destructive, so if everyone went vegan then it would get much worse. This is simply not true – as soya beans are primarily used as animal feed, and animals eat a lot more than humans do anyway, if everyone went vegan then there would be an absolutely huge decline in soya production. Indeed, the amount of soya grown for human consumption would increase, but the overall amount of soya being produced would decline.

Perhaps the most difficult area of the soya bean’s history is surrounding studies which emerged around a decade ago highlighting potential health problems that could occur with the intake of soya. Due to a high level of phytoestrogens, one study has suggested that soya can promote breast cancer. However, this study was done on animals and thus is not reliable, and further studies have actually suggested that soya can reduce risks of breast cancer. For men, there have been theories linking the consumption of soya to a reduction in the quality and quantity of semen. However, experiments have proven to reduce the risks of prostate cancer in men.

The negative health effects of soya are disputable to say the least, and it’s worth doing your own reading if you’re worried. There’s a lack of concrete evidence for the negative effects though, and much of it is based on hypothesising or subject to taking extreme doses. Arguably soya’s greatest evidence in its favour is that it has been used as a foodstuff for several thousand years by the Chinese, and the Eastern diet is often described as the healthiest in the world.

Anyways, I can’t quite see the history of a vegetable becoming a regular feature on Vegangstaz, but the soybean is pretty interesting, mainly due to its versatility and the controversy surrounding it. If you’re interested in reading a little more about this crazy bean, you can find loads of info here. Also, this originally started as a post on why the soybean is a vegan must-have, but I got a bit absorbed into the history of it all, so that post will come along soon enough.


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