Is the ‘Hormone Infiltrating’, ‘Forest Devastating’ Soy Really Vegan?


Is the ‘Hormone Infiltrating’, ‘Forest Devastating’ Soy Really Vegan?


Soy (or soya) is a high protein alternative to meat, which is commonly associated with vegetarians. With more and more people becoming conscious of the environmental downfalls of eating meat, tofu and other soy products are becoming increasingly popular.

Soy…what is it good for?

Nutritionally, tofu is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. It also contains iron and calcium, as well as small amounts of other nutrients.

Tofu on a plate surrounded by soybeans and next to a glass of soy milk

It is versatile and can be marinated, grilled, fried or enjoyed in soups. My brother-in-law makes a great tofu chocolate pudding too!

In spite of all this, soy generally has a bad reputation for two reasons…

1. It has oestrogenic properties

Soy is often criticised for its supposed ability to interfere with reproductive hormones, particularly those in the female body. This is because soybeans are a source of phytoestrogen and these have been linked to fertility problems and menstrual cycle disruption.

Although, while there is evidence to suggest that soy has a negative effect on the body, this remains only to be seen in animals. A comparison of 47 individual studies was not enough to conclude that it has the ability to impact female hormones in such a way that is commonly believed.

In the UK, soy is consumed most commonly in the form of processed meat substitutes, tofu and milk, which contain significantly lower levels of isoflavones, which are what gives the plant-based food its phytoestrogen qualities. This could explain why research efforts have only been able to show that soy affects animals in such a way.

2. Soy and deforestation

‘But what about the Amazon rainforest?’ I hear you ask…

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is often associated with the farming of soybeans, in order to quell demand for plant-based meat alternatives.

It is true that Brazil alone lost 3.2 million acres of forest in 2018. There are many reasons why the Amazon rainforest has been cleared so rapidly, including timber, mineral sourcing and ranching.

The most talked about reason for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is often soybean crops. However, 80% of all soybeans grown in the Amazon rainforest are used to feed animals.

How we can protect the Amazon rainforest and the environment

I think we can all agree that just because the soybeans grown on this land aren’t necessarily for human consumption and that some of the land cleared is used to raise cattle, this rapid deforestation is still very scary.

Although you may feel that this is out of the hands of the average person, there are reassurances to be had in that there are people working on solutions to address these issues. In 2017, Columbia set an example after the supreme court granted protection of the Amazon rainforest.  

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As well as the CO2 no longer being taken out of the atmosphere by the trees that were cut down, Brazil now has to contend with the increased methane being released into the environment from the cattle. However, scientists have shown that altering the diet of cattle to reduce the amount of soy they eat even just by a small amount, whilst substituting this for kelp, can reduce methane emissions significantly.

Kelp can be grown sustainably and enhances the natural aqua system, as well as reducing the land use for tofu-producing crops.

Furthermore, soy is often grown as a standalone crop (monocrop) in order to feed masses of livestock, which results in rapid depletion of the soil. The emergence of permaculture in farming can help to reduce the use of environmentally damaging chemicals.

soybean crops

Permaculture is a practice of replicating natural ecosystems in order to maximise the number of crops a farmer can harvest and is effective in preventing diseases that can wipe out whole fields of produce.

Raising awareness about unsustainability

It’s great that omnivores and herbivores alike are concerned by the production of soy, but it isn’t the only crop devastating forests around the world.

Many people don’t stop to think about the impacts of other widely produced crops. Let’s consider tea – loved by many and consumed on a daily basis.

In 2015, the BBC reported on the unethical conditions of workers for many big tea brands, including PG Tips, which also included their exposure to harmful chemicals, negatively impacting not only them, but their local ecosystems as well.

Around this time, Harrods refused to sell certain tea because of the bad ethics involved.

I wonder if the investigation was responsible for the changes made by leaders in the tea industry. Or was it the bad press that caused them to act quickly?

For example, Yorkshire Tea announced that they would be switching production of their plastic teabags to plant-based teabags with the hope of completing the change by the end of 2019. Though, the projected timeline has been questioned, with poor quality and the pandemic being blamed for the delay.

Will you stop drinking tea?

Maybe you feel enlightened and you’ve decided that tea and soy are the devil’s joint reincarnation and you are going to give them both up. For most us, vegan or not, this is simply not going to happen and nobody is asking you to give up your favourite things.

soy meat in a jar

If you want to be part of the solution, here are some things you can do:

1) Buy certified products!

For example, soya milk made by plant-based brand Alpro is certified by ProTerra, who are responsible for ensuring certified soy is grown ethically, humanely and in a way that is not detrimental to local ecosystems and the environment in general. 

2) Buy local produce

Unfortunately for those of us living in the UK, this may be a little more difficult because soybean crops simply do not thrive in our grotty weather!

3) Contact supermarkets and show demand

If you can’t buy locally sourced produce, get in touch with your preferred supermarket to find out where they get their soy from- this could be what they use to make their burgers or milks or just what they add to chocolate and biscuits. You might be able to find this information on the labels for the products themselves. 

4) Avoid soya altogether

There are now many alternatives to soy on the market, including nut and oat milks and coconut cheeses. It is possible to follow a vegan lifestyle and not feel like you’re missing out by cutting out this plant-based source of protein.

5) Share and generate awareness by talking to your friends and family

If you have lots of like-minded individuals in your life, you can save some time, as they might already know the best sustainably sourced/locally produced products. Alternatively, raise the issue of soy farming to those who might be interested to see how much they know.



Vegan mum and travel enthusiast, currently studying a masters in nutrition

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