A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots, and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals. One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”
Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S. Now there are thousands.
How much difference does it make? Is grassfed really better? If so, in what ways, and how much?
If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better. But then, almost anything would be. Putting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.
Cattle (like sheep, deer and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.
In today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that human can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat. Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in. It’s a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.
How has a system that is so wasteful come to be? Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces. They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.
From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion. This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been. Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.
Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area. Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place. If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today. But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill. Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.
Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down. Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.
Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster. Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.
All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa. But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system. It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.
Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:
“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”
Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh. Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
Further, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.
It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene. It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S. Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.
Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment. As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed. It is now nearly as acidic as our own. In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us. As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
Which is more nutritious?
Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.
Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. A grassfed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grainfed steak.
In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
What about taste?
The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost. These differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”
Even the people who market grassfed beef say this is true. Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”
Unlike cows in a feedlot, animals on a pasture move around. This exercise creates muscle tone, and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many people prefer. Grassfed beef doesn’t provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come to prefer.
What about the environment?
As well as its nutritional advantages, there are also environmental benefits to grassfed beef. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy. Growing the corn used to feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting. The animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’ wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.
Less misery on the menu?
From a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond. Pastured livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming. They are not cooped up in cages barely larger than their own bodies, or packed together like sardines for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.
Grassfed or organic?
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free. These products come from animals who were fed organically grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots. The sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold in the U.S. today comes from feedlots.
Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.
And then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing. A case in point is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County, California. Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in health food stores west of the Rockies. The company says it is “at the forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural beef.”
But even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is meaningless. Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a 100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley. And the feed is not organically grown. The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed. Despite the marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed. (Harris Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)
Is grassfed beef the answer?
Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do.
There is a dark side even to grassfed beef. It takes a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the current meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger. Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population. But in a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.
What would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef? It’s been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental nightmare of epic proportions. In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global deforestation, which is in turn responsible for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Even Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd, acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation. Much of the remaining 20 percent is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu. It is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Trendy consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef. But grassfed and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change. They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases: methane and nitrous oxide.
Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis. The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each cow produces methane emissions for a longer time.
Meanwhile, producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the slower weight gain, even more. These emissions are not only fueling global warming. They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
The sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a tremendous toll on the environment. Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle spending much of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”
Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.
The USDA’s taxpayer-funded Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”
In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”
But the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.
All told, Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and who pay almost nothing for the privilege.
The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate. Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985
Not the Stiffest Competition
Grassfed beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and may be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be an improvement.
I am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound like a hamburger was truly a health food.
The competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of Coke.
Comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, far more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a modest scale. Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat meat, dairy products or eggs, then that’s the best way to do it.
But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They are still high on the food chain, and so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins.
While grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat, or even none. If as a society we ate less, the world would indeed be a brighter and more beautiful place. Consider, for example, the impact on global warming. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20 percent. Such a change would decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars and trucks for Priuses.
If we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as ecosystems.
And there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like you to hold. And there is some truth to it.
But it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse.
The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, as indeed most of them are, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.
In recent years, I’ve received quite a number of requests from people asking for my views on soy products. Many of these inquiries have mentioned a stridently anti-soy article written by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, titled “Tragedy and Hype,” that has been widely circulated. This article presents a systematic series of accusations against soy consumption, and has formed the basis for many similar articles. Large numbers of people, as a result, are now seriously questioning the safety of soy.
The litany of dangers with soy products, according to the article by Fallon and Enig, is nearly endless. Tofu, they say, shrinks brains and causes Alzheimer’s. Soy products promote rather than prevent cancer. Soy contains “antinutrients” and is full of toxins. The pro-soy publicity of the past few years is nothing but “propaganda.” Soy formula, they say, amounts to “birth control pills for babies.”
“Soy is not hemlock,” they conclude, “soy is more insidious than hemlock.”
Fallon and Enig say the soy industry knows soy is poisonous, and “lie(s) to the public to sell more soy.” They say that soy is “the next asbestos.” They predict that there will be huge lawsuits with “thousands and thousands of legal briefs.” They warn that those who will be held legally responsible for deliberately manipulating the public to make money “include merchants, manufacturers, scientists, publicists, bureaucrats, former bond financiers, food writers, vitamin companies, and retail stores.”
Given the rapidly expanding role that soy in its many forms has come to play in the Western diet, these accusations are extremely serious. If they are to be believed, the widespread trust that many people have come to have in soy is not only misplaced, but disastrous.
Soy foods have come to play such a significant role in the diets of many health conscious people, and the allegations that have been made against soy are so many and so grave, that I think the topic warrants a careful, detailed and meticulous look. What follows is my attempt to provide an objective appraisal of both the benefits and the dangers of soy.
Are Soy Foods a Blessing or a Curse?
It’s not that long ago that soybeans were considered by most Americans to be “hippie food.” But then medical research began accumulating, affirming that soy consumption reduced heart disease and cancer risk, that it lengthened lives and enhanced their quality, and that it provided an almost ideal protein to substitute for animal proteins that almost inevitably come packaged with cholesterol and unhealthy forms of saturated fat. The mainstream culture began taking note. In a 1999 article titled “The Joy of Soy,” Time Magazine announced that consuming a mere 1.5 ounces of soy a day can significantly lower both total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. The evidence was becoming so convincing that even the ardently pro-pharmaceutical FDA wound up affirming that soybeans are a food that can prevent and even cure disease.
As the evidence of soy’s health benefits kept accumulating, sales and consumption skyrocketed. Books like The Simple Soybean and Your Health, Tofu Cookery, and The Book of Tofu helped spread the word. Annual soymilk sales, which amounted to only a few million dollars in the early 1980s, have now soared to more than a billion dollars. And it’s not just soy milk, it’s all soy foods. From 1996 to 2011, annual soy food sales in the U.S. literally quintupled — increasing from $1 billion to $5 billion.
But, according to the article by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, this is all a tragic mistake, because soy is far indeed from living up to the many health claims that its proponents have made for it. Quite to the contrary, Fallon and Enig say, “the soybean contains large quantities of natural toxins or ‘antinutrients,’ (including) potent enzyme inhibitors that block the action of trypsin and other enzymes needed for protein digestion… They can produce serious distress, reduced protein digestion and chronic deficiencies in amino acid uptake.”
These are serious allegations, because soy is often consumed precisely for its considerable protein levels. In my view, there is a kernel of truth behind these charges, though one that Fallon and Enig greatly overstate. It is true that the protein in cooked soybeans is slightly less digestible than that found in most animal foods. However, when soybeans are made into soymilk, tofu, tempeh, and the other common forms of soyfoods, their protein digestibility is enhanced and becomes similar to animal foods. Any negative impact on protein digestibility due to the presence of the enzyme inhibitors found in soybeans is rendered nearly irrelevant in such foods. And even simple soybeans, with their reduced digestibility, are so high in protein and in all the essential amino acids that they could still easily serve as the sole source of protein in a person’s diet if that was necessary for some reason.
“Soybeans also contain haemagglutinin,” continue Fallon and Enig, “a clot-promoting substance that causes red blood cells to clump together. Trypsin inhibitors and haemagglutinin are growth inhibitors… Soy also contains goitrogens — substances that depress thyroid function.” It is true that soybeans contain these substances. How then do we explain that moderate amounts of soyfoods have been eaten happily by entire civilizations for thousands of years? Fallon and Enig’s case is built on animal studies in which test animals fed extremely large and unnatural amounts of soy containing these substances “failed to grow normally,” and developed “pathological conditions of the pancreas, including cancer.” But the fact is there is little to no evidence that the quantities of these substances found in a typical diet including soybeans would represent a health danger to humans.
Animal studies are at the very foundation of many of the accusations against soy. But humans are different from any other animal, so foods that affect them in one way may well affect us differently. Protease inhibitors are substances that retard the action of digestive enzymes that cause the breakdown of protein. Fallon and Enig refer to studies that show that protease inhibitors isolated from soybeans can cause cancer in some animal species, but there is no evidence even suggesting that they have the same effect in humans. In fact, protease inhibitors found in soybeans have been shown to reduce the incidence of colon, prostate and breast cancer in humans.
Fallon and Enig make much of a 1985 study which showed that soy increases the risk of pancreatic cancer in rats. But researchers with the National Cancer Institute point out that the pancreas of a few species of animals, notably rats and chicks, are extraordinarily sensitive to dietary protease inhibitors such as those found in soy. This sensitivity has not been found in other species such as hamsters, mice, dogs, pigs, and monkeys, they say, and is “not expected to occur in humans.” In fact, while rats fed nothing but soy run higher risks of pancreatic cancer, human populations consuming high levels of soy have decreased rates of pancreatic cancer.
Species, even those that seem quite closely related, often function quite differently at a molecular level. It is true, as Fallon and Enig point out, that baby rats fail to thrive on soy. But they also fail to thrive on human breast milk. This is because rats and humans have vastly different nutritional requirements. Human milk, for example, is 5% protein; rats’ milk is 45% protein. The difference in nutritional requirements and responses for different species can be enormous. Foods that are highly nutritious for one species are often inedible or even poisonous to other species.
Soybeans are high in isoflavones — phytoestrogens, or plant substances that behave like weak forms of the hormone estrogen. Fallon and Enig select a few animal studies that appear to show a correlation between soy isoflavone consumption and cancer risk. But soy consumption has been repeatedly found to lower breast cancer risk in humans, precisely because of the isoflavones in soy.
Why the difference? K. O. Kline, M.D., of the Department of Clinical Science at duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware comments in a 1998 article in Nutrition Reviews. “It is clear from the literature,” writes Kline, “that different species and different tissues are affected by (soy) isoflavones in markedly different ways.” Fallon and Enig, however, do not agree. They denounce Kline’s comments, fuming that “this is scientific double talk.” Another interpretation would be that Kline is simply acknowledging the reality that there are physiological differences between species that must be taken into account.
Remember thalidomide, the drug that caused horrendous birth defects in children born to mothers who took the drug during their pregnancies? Thalidomide had been widely tested on animals, where it appeared to be totally safe. Similarly, the combination of fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, recently touted to be the answer to dieters’ prayers, was extensively tested on animals and found to be very safe. Unfortunately it caused heart value abnormalities in humans. When the arthritis drug Opren was tested on monkeys, no problems were found, but it killed 61 people before it was withdrawn. Cylert was fine for animals, but when it was given to hyperactive children it caused liver failure.
Soy and Cancer: What is the Connection?
The important question, then, is what is the relationship between soy consumption and cancer in humans? Despite the allegations of those wishing to build a case against soy, the evidence strongly suggests not only that soy does not promote cancer, but that it reduces cancer risk.
For example, the elders of Okinawa have repeatedly been shown to be healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. This was demonstrated conclusively in the renowned Okinawa Centenarian Study, a 25-year study sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Health.
The researchers conducting the study analyzed the diet and health profiles of Okinawan elders, and compared them to other elder populations throughout the world. They concluded that high soy consumption is one of the main reasons that Okinawans are at extremely low risk for hormone-dependent cancers, including cancers of the breast, prostate, ovaries and colon. Compared to North Americans, they have a staggering 80 percent less breast cancer and prostate cancer, and less than half the ovarian cancer and colon cancer.
This enormously reduced cancer risk arises in part, the study’s authors say, from the Okinawans large consumption of isoflavones from soy. This is an important finding. The lowest cancer rates in the world are found in the Okinawans who consume the most soy.
Other studies have confirmed the link between soy consumption and reduced cancer risk. The Japan Public Health Center Study found the lowest breast cancer rates in those prefectures where women ate the most soy products. A recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet showed that women who ate the most flavonoids (mostly isoflavones from soy products) had a substantially lower risk of breast cancer than those who had lower flavonoid intake.
Perhaps most tellingly, a huge study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2003 found that women with a high intake of soy reduced their risk of breast cancer by 54 percent compared to women with a low intake of soy.
The anti-soy campaigners repeatedly say that soyfoods raise the risk of cancer. But such charges are utterly incompatible with the findings of the prestigious Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which found a 70% reduction in prostate cancer for men who consume soymilk daily.
Kaayla Daniel is a protege of Fallon and Enig and the author of a prominent anti-soy book, titled The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food. The book is edited by Fallon, who owns the small book company that publishes it. In her book, Daniel says that “soy can almost certainly be blamed for at least some of the increase in thyroid cancers in that soy isoflavones [the type of phytoestrogen found in soy] induce… thyroid tumors.” But that’s not what the Cancer Prevention Institute of California found when it undertook the Bay Area Thyroid Cancer Study. Quite the contrary. They found that those who consumed the most phytoestrogens from soy foods, whole grains, nuts and seeds, had a markedly lower risk of thyroid cancer. Women who consumed the most soy had about half the risk of thyroid cancer compared to those who consumed the least.
It is true that if you eat too much soy and your diet is deficient in iodine, your thyroid gland may become swollen and underactive, you may develop symptoms of hypothyroidism (such as lethargy and depression), and your risk of thyroid cancer could increase. But the answer isn’t to avoid soy. It’s to make sure you consume enough iodine. Soy does not cause thyroid problems in people who consume adequate amounts of iodine.
In the U.S., iodine deficiency is very rare, because common table salt is fortified with iodine, and a mere quarter teaspoon of iodized salt provides the needed daily dose. Those not consuming iodized salt, however, should make sure they are obtaining reliable sources of the mineral. The iodine content of plant foods depends greatly on the amounts found in the soil in which they are grown. Sea vegetables and seaweeds are excellent and reliable sources of the mineral, and most multi-vitamin supplements contain iodine.
Meanwhile, Kaayla Daniel’s book has misled many health conscious people into believing that soy increases the risk not only for thyroid problems and thyroid cancer, but for many other forms of cancer. As a result, increasing numbers of people have become frightened of eating soy.
Health researcher Syd Baumel was one of the first to challenge the promotion of soy as a miracle food, and to question the idea that the more soy you eat the better. But when he looked into Daniel’s claims, he was anything but impressed. He says Daniel’s book “consistently deceives and manipulates the reader in order to build a false case… Pretty well anywhere you dip into this book, the waters are muddied with half-truths, misrepresentations, errors, lies and other tricks of false persuasion.” Baumel gives this example:
“Daniel cites as five-year clinical trial in which six out of 179 post-menopausal women taking a very high dosage soy isoflavone supplement developed endometrial hyperplasia. None of the 197 women who took a placebo did. ‘Endometrial proliferation is a precursor of cancer,’ Daniel warns, implying the women can look forward to a date with the oncologist. She doesn’t mention that all of them developed the relatively benign, non-atypical form of endometrial hyperplasia. Research suggests this condition carries a 2 percent risk of progressing to endometrial cancer – little different from the 1 to 2 percent risk for women in general.”
In 1997, the American Institute for Cancer Research, in collaboration with its international affiliate, the World Cancer Research Fund, issued a major international report, Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. This report analyzed more than 4,500 research studies, and its production involved the participation of more than 120 contributors and peer reviewers, including participants from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Agency on Research in Cancer, and the U.S. National Cancer Institute. In 2000, Riva Bitrum, the President of Research for the American Institute for Cancer Research, said that “Studies showing consistently that just one serving a day of soyfoods contributes to a reduction in cancer risk are encouraging.”
Of course, any foods with such potent biological properties — even healthful ones — are bound to have some unwanted side effects in some people under some circumstances. Although soy consumption on the whole reduces cancer incidence, there are questions about its effect on women who have estrogen-positive (ER+) breast tumors. These tumors are stimulated by estrogen. Might they therefore be stimulated by the weak estrogenic activity of the isoflavones found in soy? The jury is still out. There is some evidence this may be the case, though there is also evidence that soy consumption favorably alters the metabolism of estrogen so that it is less likely to stimulate tumor growth. For healthy women, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, “even two or three servings a day of soyfoods should be fine as one part of a mostly plant-based diet.”
Soy supplements are a different story. Soy pills and powders can contain amounts of isoflavones (usually daidzein and genistein) far in excess of the amounts possible to get through diet. Very little research has been done on the effects of such mega-doses. Although there is no firm evidence to demonstrate that ingestion of isoflavones has adverse effects on human beings, there is also no clear evidence that large doses are safe. Some manufacturers of soy protein isolates and supplements recommend that people consume 100 grams of soy protein a day (the equivalent of 7 or 8 soyburgers). I believe it’s probably safer, until more is learned, to avoid concentrated soy supplements entirely.
Does Soy Inhibit Mineral Absorption?
Fallon and Enig are adamant in their beef with soy, however, and their indictment of the bean continues. They fault soy for its phytic acid content. “Soybeans are high in phytic acid,” they say, “a substance that can block the uptake of essential minerals — calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc in the intestinal tract… Vegetarians who consume tofu as a substitute for meat and dairy products risk severe mineral deficiencies.”
It is true that soybeans are high in phytates, as are many plant foods such as other beans, grains, nuts and seeds, and it is true that phytates can block the uptake of essential minerals, and particularly zinc. This would be a problem if a person consumed enormous amounts of soy. But the phytic acid levels found in a plant-strong diet including as much as three servings of soy a day are not high enough to cause mineral absorption problems for most people. Furthermore, when soy products are fermented — as they are in tempeh, miso, and many other soyfoods — phytate levels are reduced to about a third their initial level. Other methods of soy preparation such as soaking, roasting and sprouting also significantly reduce phytate content.
While phytates can compromise mineral absorption to some degree, there is absolutely no reliable evidence that vegetarians who eat soyfoods “risk severe mineral deficiencies.” Even the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has acknowledged the nutritional adequacy of meatless diets. In an official statement, these representatives of the beef industry declared, “Well planned vegetarian diets can meet dietary recommendations for essential nutrients.”
Let’s look, one by one, at the minerals Fallon and Enig claim to be lacking for those who consume tofu rather than meat:
• Zinc: It is wise for vegetarians to include plenty of zinc-rich foods in their diets, but the levels of zinc found in the hair, saliva, and blood of vegetarians are typically in the normal range. Zinc deficiency would be particularly harmful in pregnant women, but studies of pregnant women have consistently found no difference in zinc status between vegetarians and nonvegetarians.
• Iron: Plant-strong diets are much higher in vitamin C, and vitamin C greatly enhances iron absorption, so even without eating red meat (which is high in iron), and even with the reduction in iron absorption from phytates, vegetarians are no more prone to iron deficiency than are nonvegetarians.
• Copper: Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in copper, which overrides any reduced rate of absorption from phytates. Vegans, in particular, consume considerably more copper than meat-eaters.
• Magnesium: Although the higher phytate content of soybeans and grains slightly reduces magnesium absorption, vegetarian diets are typically so much higher in this crucial mineral that vegetarians consistently show markedly higher serum magnesium levels than do nonvegetarians.
• Calcium: Calcium from soy is nearly as bioavailable as calcium from cow’s milk. Many studies have found a correlation between the consumption of isoflavones from soyfoods and increased bone health.
Soy Foods and Bone Health
Without providing any supporting evidence, Fallon and Enig go on to say that “soyfoods block calcium and cause vitamin D deficiencies… The reason that Westerners have such high rates of osteoporosis is because they have substituted soy oil for butter, which is a traditional source of vitamin D…needed for calcium absorption.”
Vitamin D is indeed needed for calcium absorption, and is crucial to human health in many other ways. But skin exposure to sunlight, not butter consumption, has always been the primary source of vitamin D in humans. In fact, people whose skin is not exposed to direct sunlight have difficulty getting enough vitamin D from their diets without supplementation. A 1999 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said that blood levels of vitamin D in sunlight-deficient people don’t begin to rise until 4,000 units of vitamin D are consumed. Someone relying on unfortified butter for this amount would have to eat four pounds of butter a day.
Why, then, do Westerners have such high rates of osteoporosis? We have become sedentary, plus we consume a highly processed, high-salt, high-animal protein diet.
The calcium-losing effect of animal protein on the human body is not a matter of controversy in scientific circles. Researchers who conducted a recent survey of diet and hip fractures in 33 countries said they found “an absolutely phenomenal correlation” between the percentage of plant foods in people’s diets, and the strength of their bones. The more plant foods people eat (particularly fruits and vegetables), the stronger their bones, and the fewer fractures they experience. The more animal foods people eat, on the other hand, the weaker their bones and the more fractures they experience.
Similarly, in January 2001, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study that reported a dramatic correlation between the ratio of animal to vegetable protein in the diets of elderly women and their rate of bone loss. In this seven-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health, more than 1,000 women, ages 65 to 80, were grouped into three categories: those with a high ratio of animal to vegetable protein, a middle range, and a low range. The women in the high ratio category had three times the rate of bone loss as the women in the low group, and nearly four times the rate of hip fractures.
Might this have been due to other factors than the ratio of animal to vegetable protein? According to the study’s lead author, Deborah Sellmeyer, M.D., Director of the Bone Density Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, researchers found this to be true even after adjusting for age, weight, estrogen use, tobacco use, exercise, calcium intake, and total protein intake. “We adjusted for all the things that could have had an impact on the relationship of high animal protein intake to bone loss and hip fractures,” Sellmeyer said. “But we found the relationship was still there.”
Does Soy Protect Against Heart Disease?
If the articles written and spawned by Fallon and Enig were to be believed, just about everything we’ve been taught to believe about soy’s benefits is completely backwards. What about soy’s vaunted reputation (and FDA approval) for bringing down cholesterol levels? “For most of us,” say Fallon and Enig, “giving up steak and eating veggieburgers instead will not bring down blood cholesterol levels.”
Someone once said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. A review of 38 studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995, found that soy consumption reduced cholesterol levels in 89 percent of the studies.
If there is a grain of truth in Fallon and Enig’s statement, it is that while soy consumption tends to bring down total cholesterol levels most in people whose cholesterol levels are high, the results are less dramatic in those with healthier levels. But even people with normal levels benefit from eating more soy, according to dozens of studies, because it improves the ratio between HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. This ratio is now recognized by the American Heart Association to be an even more important factor than total cholesterol levels in heart disease risk.
In 2000, the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association published a major statement in the peer-reviewed journal Circulation, officially recommending the inclusion of 25 grams or more of soy protein, with its associated phytochemicals intact (i.e., not in the form of an isolated soy protein supplement), in the daily diet as a means of promoting heart health. This recommendation is consistent with the FDA’s ruling allowing soy protein products to carry the health claim: “25 grams/day of soy protein, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
What do the soy pooh pooh-ers say to this? They say that lowered cholesterol levels, even those lowered by diet, are dangerous: “The truth is that cholesterol is your best friend,” they write. “When cholesterol levels in the blood are high, it’s because the body needs cholesterol… There is no greater risk of heart disease at cholesterol levels of 300 than at 180.”
That’s quite a point of view, ignoring as it does just about everything that has been learned about heart disease and cholesterol in the past 30 years of medical science. The Lipid Research Clinics Coronary Primary Prevention Trial, for example, is considered the broadest and most expensive research project in medical history. Sponsored by the federal government, it took over ten years of systematic research, and cost over $150,000,000. George Lundberg, M.D., the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, where the gargantuan study was first published, said that the study proved that even small changes in our blood cholesterol levels produce dramatic changes in heart disease rates. Charles Glueck, M.D., director of the University of Cincinnati Lipid Research Center, one of the twelve major centers participating in the project, noted: “ For every one percent reduction in total blood cholesterol level, there is a two percent reduction of heart disease risk.”
Does Soy Cause Birth Defects?
One of the most alarming allegations that Fallon and Enig and other anti-soy campaigners make is that, due to the phytoestrogens in soyfoods, vegetarian diets promote birth defects. They repeatedly refer to a study published in the British Journal of Urology that found baby boys born to vegetarian mothers were five times more likely to suffer from hypospadias, a malformation of the penis correctable with surgery. I find this disturbing, but I know of no other study that links vegetarian diets with a higher rate of any birth defect, including hypospadias, and there are a number that show the opposite — lower rates of a variety of birth defects in babies born to vegetarian mothers. If the findings of this study were valid, however, it would be extremely important.
We certainly need more studies to determine what is going on, but after reading the actual study I am not nearly as concerned as I was upon reading Fallon and Enig’s description, because what they neglect to mention is the significant fact that the total number of baby boys in the study born with this condition to vegetarian mothers was only seven.
It’s hard to know just what to make of this small and isolated study. To my eyes, it highlights how much we have yet to learn about the impact of the phytoestrogens contained in soy. Given our current state of knowledge, I think that pregnant women should largely avoid soy-based supplements. But there is no cause to conclude that vegetarian diets, or soyfoods, are suspect in pregnancy.
Vegetarian diets have consistently shown profound benefits for pregnancy and lactation, including much lower levels of the toxic chemicals that typically concentrate higher on the food chain in meat, fish and dairy products. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine on the levels of contamination in human breastmilk found that vegan mothers had dramatically lower levels of toxic chemicals in their milk compared to mothers in the general population. The highest level seen among these vegan mothers was actually lower than the lowest level seen in nonvegetarian mothers. In fact, the levels of contamination found in the milk of the vegetarian mothers was only 1 to 2 percent as great as the level found in the milk of nonvegetarians.
Infant Soy Formulas: Birth Control Pills for Babies?
Another of the disturbing charges made by the soy bashers is the allegation that “an infant exclusively fed soy formula receives the estrogenic equivalent (based on body weight) of at least five birth control pills per day.” Soy formula, say Fallon and Enig, amounts to “birth control pills for babies.”
In my view, there could be some basis here for concern. For an adult to regularly eat soy characteristically produces a reduced risk of developing breast or prostate cancer. But the same phytoestrogens that produce this effect in adults may produce very different effects in infants. “With adults, half their phytoestrogens are freed into the bloodstream to bind to estrogen receptors, which helps to fight breast cancer,” explains Patricia Bertron, dietitian director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “But with infants, less than five percent are available to bind to receptors.” There is a possibility that this could pose a risk to the sexual development of infants and children. Because the milk source makes up nearly the entire diet of infants, babies fed soy formulas may be at increased risk of harm.
These theoretical risks are quite disturbing, but they appear at this point to be merely theoretical, because we have yet to see any substantive evidence of this harm in people. There have been no reports of hormonal abnormalities in people who were fed soy formula as infants — and this includes millions of people in the past 30 years. In fact a major study published in the August, 2001, Journal of the American Medical Association found that infants fed soy formula grow to be just as healthy as those raised on cow’s milk formulas. If the phytoestrogens in soy were affecting the reproductive system of infants fed soy formulas, then soy-fed babies would develop reproductive health problems as adults. The study evaluated 811 men and women between the ages of 20 and 34 who had participated in soy and cow’s milk studies as infants. No significant differences were found between the groups in more than 30 health areas. The only exception was that women who had been soy-fed reported slightly longer menstrual periods (one-third of a day) than women raised on cow’s milk formulas.
The debate as to which is better, formulas based on soy or cow’s milk, is unresolved. Each seems to have its own dangers. What is indisputable is that babies reared on breastmilk have phenomenal health advantages over babies reared on any type of formula.
Compared to babies who are fed soy or cow’s milk based formulas, babies who are beast-fed for at least six months have:
- • Three times fewer ear infections
- • Five times fewer urinary tract infections
- • Five times fewer serious illnesses of all kinds
- • Seven times fewer allergies, and are
- • Fourteen times less likely to be hospitalized.
The health advantages of breastfeeding are almost impossible to exaggerate. Babies who are breast-fed:
- • Spit up less often
- • Have less diarrhea
- • Have less constipation
- • Are 30 times less likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
- • Are only half as likely to develop diabetes
- • Half an average I.Q. seven points higher
The health benefits of breastfeeding are lifelong. As adults, people who were breast-fed:
- • Have less asthma
- • Have fewer allergies
- • Have less diabetes
- • Have fewer skin problems including dermatitis
- • Have lower risks of heart attacks and stroke
- • Have lower cholesterol levels
- • Have less ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the large intestines)
- • Have less Crohn’s disease, and
- • Have protection from certain chronic liver diseases.
The evidence that breast is best is utterly overwhelming. Yet the anti-soy crusader Sally Fallon would evidently prefer that an infant be fed a cow’s milk formula rather than breast milk, if the mother is a vegetarian. She writes that “breast milk is best if the mother has consumed a …diet…rich in animal proteins and fat throughout her pregnancy and continues to do so while nursing her child.”
Why would someone make a statement like that? Where are these soy antagonists coming from? What are they trying to prove?
Fallon and Enig, like Kaayla Daniel and many of the other headliners in the anti-soy campaign, are proponents of the philosophy that in order to be healthy people must eat large amounts of saturated fat from animal products. They advocate feeding pureed meat to infants. And they deplore the fact that soy products are increasingly replacing animal products in the American diet.
Cow’s Milk vs. Soy Milk
Some anti-soy crusaders, most notably the U.S. dairy industry, clearly have a financial agenda. In recent years, the dairy industry has been waging war particularly against soymilk. They have attempted to keep soy beverages from being included in the milk group in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They have sued the manufacturers of soy beverages for using the word milk, claiming that the dairy industry alone has a right to use the term. And they have tried to keep soy beverages from being sold alongside cow’s milk in the grocery aisles. A spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation made it clear why the industry was upset. “It is,” he said, “a clear attempt to compete with dairy products.”
Meanwhile, the dairy industry has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and other forms of promotion trying to convince the public that cow’s milk is vastly preferable to soymilk. For example, the Dairy Bureau tell us that…. “Unfortified soy beverages contain only half of the phosphorus, 40 percent of the riboflavin, 10 percent of the vitamin A, (and) 3 percent of the calcium . . . found in a serving of cow’s milk.”
Let’s look at the Dairy Bureau’s claims carefully for a moment.
• Only half the phosphorus? That sounds bad. But we actually get plenty of phosphorus in our diets, and possibly even too much. Providing only half the phosphorus of cow’s milk is an advantage, says dietician Brenda Davis, not a disadvantage.
• Only 40 percent of the riboflavin? It’s true that unfortified soymilks contain only about half as much of this nutrient, also known as Vitamin B2, as cow’s milk. But riboflavin is plentiful in nutritional yeast and green leafy vegetables, and is found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, so getting enough riboflavin isn’t a problem for people who eat a variety of healthy foods. In fact, vegans (who consume no dairy products) consume as much, or nearly as much, of this vitamin as lacto-ovo vegetarians and non-vegetarians. A mere teaspoon of Red Star Nutritional Yeast powder contains as much riboflavin (1.6 mg) as an entire quart of cow’s milk.
• Only 10 percent of the vitamin A? Vitamin A is plentiful in plant-based diets. We don’t need milk to get sufficient amounts of this nutrient. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is quite rare among North Americans and Europeans who eat plant-based diets. Furthermore, vitamin A is high in cow’s milk only because it’s added to it, and there is no reason it could not be added to non-dairy beverages if there was some advantage to doing so.
• Only 3 percent of the calcium provided by cow’s milk? Where does the dairy industry come up with this stuff? All of the most popular soy beverages sold in the United States provide vastly more calcium than the 3 percent claimed by the Dairy Bureau. Most enriched versions provide 100 percent as much. Even those soy beverages that have not been enriched provide two to nine times as much calcium as claimed by the Dairy Bureau.
Meanwhile, there are a few more things the dairy industry isn’t telling you about the nutritional comparison between cow’s milk and soymilk that you might want to keep in mind. For example:
• Cow’s milk provides more than nine times as much saturated fat as soy beverages, so is far more likely to contribute to heart disease.
• Soy beverages provide more than 10 times as much essential fatty acids as cow’s milk, and so provide a far healthier quality of fat.
• Soy beverages are cholesterol-free, while cow’s milk contains 34 mg of cholesterol per cup.
• Soy beverages lower both total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, while cow’s milk raises both total and LDL cholesterol levels.
• Soy beverages contain numerous protective phytochemicals that may protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease and osteoporosis. Cow’s milk contains no phytochemicals.
Still, there are legitimate questions about soy. To my mind by far the most disturbing stems from the fact that 90 percent of the U.S. soybean crop today is genetically engineered. These are beans that have been genetically altered to enable the growing plants to withstand being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. Because so much Roundup is used on these crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the residues of Roundup’s active ingredients that can remain on the crop. Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues to enable a company’s success reflects an attitude in which corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety, but the increased levels have remained in force.
While Roundup has been shown to cause reproductive disorders and birth defects in a large number of animal studies, its impact on humans is far less understood. But a laboratory study done in France in 2005 found that Roundup caused the death of human placental cells. And a 2009 study found that Roundup caused total cell death in human umbilical, embryonic and placental cells within 24 hours.
It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that eating genetically engineered soybeans could pose serious health risks to people. In 2001, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé revealing that prior to being granted FDA approval, Monsanto’s own research had raised many questions about the safety of their Roundup Ready soybeans. Remarkably, the FDA did not call for more testing before allowing these soybeans to flood the marketplace. Since 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are now Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety, and because soy is contained in such a wide array of processed foods, tens of millions of people are unknowingly eating these inadequately researched foods daily. It’s a mass experiment, except that there is no control group, data is not being systematically collected, and virtually the entire human population are the guinea pigs.
According to Monsanto’s own tests, Roundup Ready soybeans contain 29 percent less of the brain nutrient choline, and 27 percent more trypsin inhibitor, the potential allergen that interferes with protein digestion, than normal soybeans. Soy products are often prescribed and consumed for their phytoestrogen content, but according to the company’s tests, the genetically altered soybeans have lower levels of phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that affects levels of phytoestrogens. And levels of lectins, which are most likely the culprit in soy allergies, are nearly double in the transgenic variety.
Compared to regular soybeans, the genetically engineered beans have more of the very things that are problematic, and less of the very things that are beneficial. As well, there is growing evidence that Roundup Ready soybeans disrupt the bacterial milieu of the human gastrointestinal tract.
In 2011, one of the nation’s senior scientists, Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University, informed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack of a dire new development. A new pathogen had been discovered that may already be doing irreparable harm to both plants and animals. Dr. Huber pleaded with Vilsack to understand that…
“It is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready soybeans and corn… This could result in a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies… For the past 40 years, I have been a scientist in the professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. Based on this experience, I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high risk status. In layman’s terms, it… is an emergency.”
Recognizing that virtually all U.S. beef cattle, dairy cows and pigs are fed Roundup Ready soy, Huber went on to write:
“The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations. These include recent reports of infertility rates in dairy heifers of over 20%, and spontaneous abortions in cattle as high as 45%…
“It is well-documented that [Roundup’s primary active ingredient] glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders…
“I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years. We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen may be instrumental to understanding and solving this problem. It deserves immediate attention with significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our critical agricultural infrastructure.”
There is a very real danger taking place in the world of soy, but it is not what the anti-soy brigade would have us believe. While they have been misleading the public, saying that soy foods are hazardous to human health, they have been missing the real danger. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans now represent almost the entire U.S. soy crop.
Here is one of the strongest arguments ever made for organic foods: The only way to insure that the soy foods you eat are not Roundup Ready is to be sure that they are organically grown.
Should We Eat Soy At All?
While soy foods have much to offer, they have certainly been at times heavily over-promoted. As a result, some people have gathered the impression that as long as they eat enough soy, they don’t have to worry about the rest of their diet and lifestyle. This is a dangerous and mistaken belief. Just as taking vitamins can’t atone for a poor diet, consuming soy can’t make up for a diet that’s otherwise poor. Nor can it compensate for a lack of exercise, or other destructive lifestyle habits.
The hype has also made us forget something important. We are eating soy products today at levels never before seen in history. Advances in food technology have made it possible to isolate soy proteins, isoflavones, and other substances found in the bean, and add them to all kinds of foods where they’ve never been before. The number of processed and manufactured foods that contain soy ingredients today is astounding. It can be hard to find foods that don’t contain soy flour, soy oil, lecithin (extracted from soy oil and used as an emulsifier in high-fat products), soy protein isolates and concentrates, textured vegetable protein (TVP), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (usually made from soy) or unidentified vegetable oils. Most of what is labeled “vegetable oil” in the U.S. is actually soy oil. And most of our soy products are now genetically engineered.
This has never before been done in human history. It is an experiment, and should be undertaken, if at all, with great humility, watchfulness, and caution. Instead, under the influence of an almost mystical belief in soy’s virtues, we’ve tended to fall prey to an illusion that has haunted American culture in all kinds of ways — the illusion that if a little is good, then surely more must be better.
The anti-soy crusaders, on the other hand, tell us that any amount of soy is too much. They are correct that there are substances in soy that if eaten in too high a concentration can cause problems. The reality, though, is that this is true of almost all foods. In fact, if you made it your policy to eat no food that contained substances which can in large enough concentrations cause damage, there would be literally nothing left for you to eat.
It’s true that soybeans contain substances that in excess can be harmful. But to imply, as some do, that eating soy foods poses a risk to human health is twisting and distorting the evidence. There would be dangers in eating a diet based entirely on soybeans. But, then, the same could be said for broccoli or any other healthy food. This is one of the reasons why varied diets are so important. Diversity protects. For most people under most circumstances, soy products are a healthful addition to a balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and other legumes. For most people, substituting soy foods for some of the animal foods they now eat is one of the healthiest dietary changes they could make.
In my view, the best way to take advantage of soy’s health benefits is to follow the example of the traditional Asian diets. As a population, these are cultures that, when they have eaten their traditional diets, have tended to be healthier and live longer than Americans. The Okinawa Japanese, the longest living people in the world, average 1-2 servings of soy each day. They have traditionally eaten regular but moderate amounts of whole soy foods such as tofu, soymilk, and edamame, as well as the fermented versions, tamari, and miso. These are the soy foods that I prefer to eat — rather than the soy products made with soy protein isolates, soy protein concentrates, hydrolyzed soy protein, partially hydrogenated soy oil, etc. Whole soy foods are more natural, and are the soy foods that have nourished entire civilizations for centuries.
For me, the best of the bean includes foods like:
* Tofu. The soaking process used traditionally to make tofu reduces the trypsin inhibitors and phytates. High in protein, tofu has a bland and neutral taste, and can be added to all kinds of foods. As with all soy products, get organic if you can.
* Tempeh. Extremely high in protein and fiber, and produced in a way that greatly lowers trypsin inhibitors and phytates, tempeh is, from a nutritional perspective, an ideal way to eat soybeans. Most people feel it needs considerable seasoning to taste good.
* Miso. Widely used as a salty condiment and a basis for soups, miso is a potent probiotic, containing many kinds of friendly bacteria that are beneficial to the intestinal tract. The fermentation process used to make miso deactivates the trypsin inhibitors and phytates.
* Tamari (or Shoyu). This is a fermented soysauce that is very flavorful and salty.
* Soymilk. Often called soy “beverages,” or soy “drinks,” because the dairy industry refuses to allow them to use the word “milk.” Trypsin inhibitors and phytates are low. I prefer the brands made with whole soybeans, and avoid those made with soy protein or soymilk powder. (There are also milks made from rice, almonds and oats that offer their own advantages to cow’s milk.)
* Soy Nuts and Soy Nut Butter. These are particular favorites with many children. Roasting helps reduce phytate levels.
* Edamame. This is a green vegetable soybean harvested while immature, so that the seeds fill 80% to 90% of the pod. Cooked for about 15 minutes in lightly salted boiling water, it’s served as a snack, mixed with vegetables, or added to salads or soups.
* Soy ice creams (non-dairy frozen desserts). These may not technically belong on a list of the healthiest of ways to eat soy, but I must admit I’ve got a weakness for them. I eat the ones made with organic beans and/or organic soymilk, and not those (like Tofutti) made with soy proteins or soy protein isolates. (There are also frozen desserts made from coconut milk and other plant foods that also offer advantages to cow’s milk ice cream.)
My conclusion: Genetically engineered soybeans present us with an historically unprecedented problem, and argue strongly for organics. Even if you eat only organically grown soy, becoming a soy-a-holic and automatically downing anything made from soybeans is not the road to health. But neither is shunning and stigmatizing soy foods.
The anti-soy crusade has needlessly frightened many away from a food source that has long been a boon to humankind, a food source that can, if we are respectful of our bodies and of nature, nourish and bless us in countless ways.
More and more people are realizing that our food chain is in crisis. Agribusiness has made profits more important than your health — more important than the environment — and more important than your right to know how your food is produced.
Perhaps because so many people are suffering, beneath the surface, a revolution has been building.
From rural farms to urban dinner plates, from grocery store shelves to state ballot boxes, ever more people are finding their voices and taking action. If you believe in taking responsibility for your health, if you believe there is an important link between the quality of the food you eat and the quality of your life, you are part of this movement.
In the seven years after my dad and colleague, John Robbins, released the first edition of his landmark bestseller Diet for a New America in 1987, beef consumption in the United States dropped by 19 percent. The National Cattlemen’s Association, not pleased, pointedly blamed Diet For A New America. Since then, beef consumption has continued to slowly drop, while organic food sales have increased over 26-fold, to now exceed four percent of market share.
People are also taking an increasing interest in the way that the animals raised for food are treated. In fact, a poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94 percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from cruelty. Nine U.S. states have now joined the entire European Union in banning gestational crates for pigs, and Australia’s two largest supermarket chains now sell only cage-free eggs in their house brands.
The demand is growing for food that is organic, sustainable, fair trade, GMO-free, humane, and healthy. In cities around the world, we’re seeing more and more farmer’s markets (a nearly three-fold increase in the last decade), and more young people getting back into farming. Grocery stores (even big national chains) are displaying local, natural and organic foods with pride. The movements for healthy food are growing fast, and starting to become a political force.
In 2012, California voters put an initiative on the ballot that called would have mandated the labeling of food containing GMOs. Monsanto and their buddies in the pesticide and junk food business were forced to spend $46 million burying California’s voters under an avalanche of deception in order to narrowly defeat California’s Proposition 37 in the November election. Although they won the battle, more than six million California voters had come out in favor of the “right to know.” It was clear that the natural foods movement was becoming a political force to be reckoned with.
Now organizers in 30 other states have begun building GMO labeling campaigns, and efforts to improve treatment of animals, to make factory farms pay for the pollution they produce, and to reform the food offered in school lunches are all gaining strength.
What You Can Do
Go to the movies. Eric Schlosser’s Food, Inc., Drs. Caldwell Esslestyn and T. Colin Campbell’s Forks Over Knives, and Jeffrey Smith’s Genetic Roulette are some of the most popular and insightful films currently on the market.
Boycott the bad guys. Many people are choosing to boycott companies that oppose labeling of GMOs, that treat farm animals cruelly, or that profit from the sale of junk food. Other consumers are choosing to buy from the good guys. For example, the non-profit Non-GMO Project, which offers a third party certification program, has now verified 764 products, and had a record-shattering 189 new enrollment inquiries in October. You can also check out the farmer’s market nearest you.
Sign petitions for GMO labeling. Want to work for policy change? A team of organizations, led by Care2 and the Food Revolution Network, have launched a petition demanding that Congress label GMOs, and it has already generated more than 80,000 signatures. And last year’s JustLabelIt petition to the FDA, which generated more than 1.3 million signatures, is being revived in hopes that the FDA might eventually dig itself out of Monsanto’s back pocket.
Get politically engaged. For the passionate activist, there’s always more you can do, like lobbying your member of Congress, your mayor, your governor, your local media outlets, or your relatives. You can also join the Humane Society’s campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary’s work for animal welfare legislation.
Get engaged and informed. For a directory of organizations working for healthy, sustainable and humane food, as well as free access to dozens of cutting edge articles and tools to help you make a difference, you can sign up to join the Food Revolution Summit. Or check out the forthcoming book, Voices of the Food Revolution, which captures some of the top insights of gamechanging food movement leaders.
Big agribusiness would probably like us all to sit alone in the dark, munching on highly processed, genetically engineered, chemical-laden, pesticide-contaminated pseudo-foods. But the tide of history is turning, and regardless of how much they spend attempting to maintain their hold on our food systems, more and more people are saying No to foods that lead to illness, and YES to foods that help us heal.
The debate over healthcare can be intensely polarizing. But whatever role you believe government should play, one fact is indisputable. The cost of health care just keeps on rising. In fact, medical care now represents nearly 20% of total US GDP.
Health care spending is so far out of control that not only individuals and families, but also the entire economy is buckling under the strain. General Motors spends so much money for its employees’ health care that Warren Buffet has called the corporation “a health and benefits company with an auto company attached.” Each year, General Motors, like Ford and other U.S. automakers, pays more than $1,500 in health care costs for every car they make. Japan’s Honda pays only $150.
The chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, says that his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee.
It hasn’t always been like this. We now spend more than $2.5 trillion annually on medical care. But as recently as 1950, Americans spent only about $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars). The increase has been mind-boggling. After adjusting for inflation, we now spend as much on health care every ten days as we did in the entire year of 1950.
But Aren’t We Healthier Than Ever?
Perhaps skyrocketing spending could be justified if the result was greatly improved health for the nation’s citizens. But the truth is that our health has actually been declining. According to a 2005 Johns Hopkins University analysis, “On most health indicators, the US relative performance declined since 1960; on none did it improve.”
Despite spending far more per capita on health care than any other nation, the U.S. now ranks a dismally low 37th among nations in infant mortality rates, and 38th in life expectancy. In 2010, the World Health Organization assessed the overall health outcomes of nations. It placed 36 other countries ahead of the United States. We are fast becoming the fattest and sickest industrialized country in world history.
What Should We Do?
This would be tragic in any case, but it is especially so because we know exactly how to bring down the costs of health care while dramatically improving our health.
Studies have shown that 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable, and the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet.
If we were to stop overeating, to stop eating unhealthy foods, and to instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties, we would have a more affordable, sustainable and effective health care system. We’d be less dependent on insurance companies and doctors, and more dependent on our own health-giving choices.
The typical American diet is producing devastating rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It’s making us sick, and it’s bankrupting our families, our companies, and our government. If you were to design a diet to promote heart disease, cancer and diabetes, you’d be hard pressed to do better than what many of us in the US eat today.
Benjamin Franklin spoke of becoming “healthy, wealthy and wise.” We are doing the exact opposite.
We can, as a society, be astoundingly cruel to people who are obese. They might be creative, caring and hopeful people, but we don’t see that. Far too often, we see only their weight.
What does it say about us that we act as though you can take the measure of a person by the size bathing suit they wear?
Maybe this partially explains why obese people are flocking to a restaurant outside Phoenix, Arizona, whose name, and I am not making this up, is the Heart Attack Grill. The restaurant, which seats 100, is often packed. It offers what owner Jon Basso calls, “an environment of acceptance to overweight customers who are typically demonized by society.”
But at this restaurant, it’s a little more than acceptance. The Heart Attack Grill literally celebrates obesity. Customers who are over 350 pounds eat for free. A scale is strategically placed at the center of the restaurant, so other diners can watch the weigh-ins. When customers exceed 350 pounds, says the restaurant’s owner, “Everybody applauds and cheers for them. A big smile comes over their face, and for once they are finally accepted. They are not picked on here.”
It’s all made to seem sexy, too. Waitresses, all of them young and slender, are dressed as scantily clad nurses, wearing high heels, thigh-high stockings, and skimpy outfits revealing lots of cleavage.
It sounds like fun.
Except when it isn’t.
On March 4, 2011 the 575-pound spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill, a 29-year-old man named Blair River, died. It wasn’t a heart attack, it was pneumonia. He had been the public face of the restaurant and the star of its advertising. He was also the single father for a five-year-old girl.
At nearly 600 pounds. Blair River ate all his meals free at the restaurant.
Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso did not deny the link between the young man’s excessive weight and his tragically premature death. “I hired him to promote my food,” said Basso, “(but his) life was cut short because he carried extra weight.” Ironically, the restaurant’s motto is “Food Worth Dying For.”
Of course, no one is forcing anyone to eat at the Heart Attack Grill or to stuff themselves full of unhealthy food. It’s a free country, in theory anyway, and we’re free to eat ourselves to death if we want to do so.
But some would say that the Heart Attack Grill steps over a line, to the point of enabling dangerous food addictions. There is certainly nothing remotely resembling healthy on the menu. Customers can purchase cigarettes, but only the non-filtered type. On the wall are prominent displays advertising menu items such as “Quadruple Bypass Burgers” that carry 8,000 calories, and “Flatliner Fries” that are deep-fried in pure lard. Perhaps joking, owner Basso says, “We’re in the front lines of the battle against anorexia.”
But Blair River’s death is no joke. And it would be a mistake to make light of the medical consequences of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that obese people have a substantially higher risk not only for heart attacks, but also for diabetes, most cancers, and many other types of cardiovascular disease.
Heart Attack Grill owner Basso doesn’t plan any changes on account of the young man’s death. Scantily-clad waitresses will still regularly exhort customers to eat all they can. He’s making money, and thinks the restaurant is great fun.
But is it funny that we have become the most obese society in the history of the world? Are we to laugh at the fact that two-thirds of the residents of the United States are now either overweight or obese? So many children are developing the most common type of diabetes that medical authorities have had to change the name of the disease. What was formerly called “adult-onset diabetes” is now called “type 2 diabetes.” It accounts for 90 percent of the diabetes in the country, and the incidence in children is skyrocketing.
It’s tempting to point our fingers and pass judgment. We can blame fast food companies that aggressively market unhealthy foods to children, we can blame people who overeat for their lack of will power, and we can blame parents for feeding their kids poorly. We can blame harmful ingredients such as trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup, and we can blame the pressures of modern life that turn people into addicts of one kind or another.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but who does that help? Does it help those with weight problems that leave them vulnerable to disease and prone to feelings of shame?
What if we were instead to learn from those people who have taken the arduous, difficult, and ultimately joyful journey from obesity to health?
I have had the wonderfully good fortune recently to become friends with a young woman named Natala Constantine and her husband Matt. At their wedding, Natala was morbidly obese.
She knew something about the abuse endured by obese people in our society. By then, she had lost track of the number of times she had been humiliated in public, called ugly names by strangers, and been physically hurt by people who felt entitled to treat her as less than human because of her weight.
People constantly told Natala she was lucky Matt had fallen in love with her, and that he must be amazing to be able to look past her weight.
A week after the wedding, she was diagnosed with severe diabetes. Her blood had become so acidic that her organs were shutting down, and doctors seriously doubted whether she would survive. She was 25-years-old.
Five years later, Natala was taking up to 13 different medications and as much as 200 units of insulin a day. She ate what many people would call a healthy diet — lots of animal protein, and almost no carbohydrates. She had been told that a diet high in animal protein was the only way she could control her diabetes, but it wasn’t working. She was working out at a gym for two to three hours a day, but at 5’2″ tall, she still weighed close to 400 pounds.
When Natala developed an infection in her right calf, doctors told her that part of her lower right leg might need to be amputated. But then a friend, who Natala described to me as “a vegan and into yoga,” suggested that she consider a natural approach to her diabetes, and that she start to think of food as medicine. “I wanted to smash her,” Natala admits. “How dare she suggest something so simple! Didn’t she know that I had been to the best doctors, that I was on the best diet, that I was working out?”
But Natala did take her friend’s advice to heart, and decided to go on what she calls a “100-percent healthy plant-strong diet.”
“For the first three weeks,” she says, “I felt as though I was ridding myself of much more than animal products. Food had a hold on me that I could not even conceptualize prior to those three weeks. I would sit in my car and cry outside of sub shops, just wanting a tuna melt.”
It was rough, but Natala stayed with it and the results were nothing short of miraculous. In 30 days, she was off all insulin.
The physicians she was seeing for her diabetes took a look at her numbers, were amazed, and wanted to know how she did it. “I told them I had adopted a completely plant-based diet. They didn’t seem surprised at all, and told me that plant-based diets were helping to reverse diabetes. When I asked why they had not suggested it, they told me because it isn’t practical.”
Aghast, she asked her doctor, “Do you think it’s practical to be 30 years old and lose a leg?”
She walked out of that doctor’s office and never went back. “Everything changed from that moment,” she recalls. “I slowly decreased all the other diabetes medicines I was on. I lowered my blood cholesterol without drugs. I lowered my blood pressure without drugs. I corrected my hormonal problems without drugs. Many diabetics go blind, but I reversed the nerve damage in my eyes. And that infection in my leg? It completely healed. The arthritis in my feet? It went away.”
Today, Natala Constantine has lost almost 200 pounds, is medicine-free, and continues to make strides toward her ideal weight. Her diabetes is in complete remission. I’ve met her and I can attest that she is one of the happiest and most radiant people you could hope to meet. A concert violinist, she exudes joy.
And her husband, Matt? While Natala was dealing with diabetes, he was obese and suffered from severe food allergies. Eating a few tomatoes would send him to the emergency room. His food allergies dominated his life. And now? His improvement, on a 100-percent healthy plant-strong diet, is almost as miraculous as his wife’s. A concert pianist, he has lost 90 pounds, is now a healthy weight, and his food allergies are entirely behind him.
It’s quite a world we live in it, isn’t it? On the one hand, we have the Heart Attack Grill, whose 570-pound spokesman died at the age of 29. On the other, we have people like Natala and Matt Constantine, who have taken a different path.
We live in a society that tends to cruelly stigmatize the obese. The Heart Attack Grill represents one form of response. It can feel empowering to turn shame into defiance. When society points its finger at you, blaming you and denying its own illness, there is a natural urge to send a message back to society with your middle finger.
But is there a healthier alternative? What if we could rid ourselves of shame, and mobilize a commitment to greater wellbeing and happiness? What if we could refuse to internalize society’s negative messages, and instead build a healthy life of joy, confidence, and beauty?
Cutting back on heavily sweetened beverages like sodas and juice-like drinks is a good place to start. Eating less processed foods and more whole foods is another good step. Getting exercise helps a lot. And the more of your nutrients you can get from plant sources, the better.
Eat a healthy plant-strong diet, and your body will thank you for the rest of your life.
On August 21, 2012, the USDA shut down operations at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif. The facility, located at the center of California’s dairy industry, slaughters California dairy cows when their milk production declines and sells their meat to make hamburger for the school lunch program. Federal regulators took the action after receiving undercover footage taken at the slaughterhouse by an animal welfare group, Compassion Over Killing.
Central Valley Meat Co. is owned by Brian and Lawrence Coelho. Asked for a comment, Brian Coelho said: “Our company seeks not just to meet federal humane handling regulations, but exceed them.”
Meanwhile, the California Milk Advisory Board keeps telling us that “Happy Cows Come From California.” In fact, the same week that the Hanford, California slaughterhouse was shut down, the Milk Board cranked up the ad campaign with a new twist. Titled “Friends,” the new ads use a happy and talkative cow to convey the unmistakable feeling that by eating California cheese and drinking California milk, you are befriending cows and taking them into your family. The tag line is “Make us part of your family.”
This is not a new ploy. Factory farm dairies have long employed the PR tactic of telling consumers that they treat their animals “just like members of their own families.” Considering the footage provided by Compassion Over Killing, I hope that isn’t true. It shows dairy cows bleeding and thrashing painfully after being repeatedly shot in the head with a pneumatic gun in bungled efforts to render them unconscious prior to killing them. One cow is shown still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifts her by a single leg for transport to the area where her throat will be slit.
If you’ve eaten at In-N-Out Burger, you may have eaten a burger made from the flesh of a cow killed at Central Valley Meat Co. The burger chain has regularly obtained meat from this slaughterhouse, but temporarily severed ties with the company after the undercover footage came to light. After seeing the footage, USDA officials began investigating whether beef from sick cows has reached the food supply and should be recalled. The practice of sending meat to market from sick animals is illegal.
How often are dairy cows treated this badly in today’s slaughterhouses? It’s hard to know. The industry has gotten legislation passed that makes it illegal to take undercover footage of cruelty to farmed animals, so undercover investigators risk years in prison to do so.
The industry considers people who take undercover footage to be criminals and wants them jailed. But if it weren’t for such footage, we would have no idea what goes on in these plants. We’d just have the Milk Board reassuring us that they treat cows just like members of their own family.
II find it difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this footage and find it tolerable.
California could have been the first state in the nation to mandate the labeling of genetically engineered foods. We would have joined more than 60 countries where consumers have the right to know if their food has been genetically modified. But the prospect of Proposition 37 terrified the junk food and pesticide companies that want to keep us in the dark about what we eat.
The “No on 37″ campaign spent $46 million burying the state’s voters in an avalanche of misleading ads and outright falsehoods. Their efforts defeated the proposition, 53 percent to 47 percent.
But Monsanto and their peeps didn’t just spend $46 million promoting their opinion. They also lied and got away with it. Check out these examples:
1) They illegally included the FDA logo in a “No on 37″ mailing to state residents, and made up a quote from the FDA, which the FDA refuted. The FDA did not and cannot express an opinion on ballot initiatives.
2) They used the Stanford logo in TV ads and mailers, when the University also did not take a stand on the issue. And they said that Henry I. Miller, their hired gun, is a professor at Stanford when in reality, he works for the Hoover Institution — which rents office space on the campus.
3) They paid a PR firm with expertise in fighting recycling legislation (on behalf of the soda pop industry) to generate a misleading ”study” that was designed to show the proposition raising food prices by hundreds of dollars per state resident per year. This despite independent economic analysis concluding that it would not raise prices in any meaningful way, and that in Europe, mandated labeling was not linked to an increase in food prices. (Do you really believe the pesticide and junk food companies would spend $46 million trying to save you money?)
4) They said there have never been any documented ill-effects from GMO consumption. But many allege that 37 direct human deaths and 1,500 disabilities linked to a toxic batch of the supplement Tryptophanwere caused by a genetically engineered strain of bacteria used in production. And there are numerous reports of livestock that have died as a result of grazing on GMO cotton. There could be far more widespread ill-effects, but without labeling, it’s nearly impossible to find out conclusively.
5) They said Prop 37 was full of exemptions for special interests. But in reality, the exemptions were modeled after those adopted throughout the European Union and every other country that calls for labeling. For instance, livestock that are fed GMO grains don’t have to be labeled genetically engineered unless the animal, itself, is genetically engineered. That’s not a special interest exemption — it’s basic science.
What’s Next For The Food Movement?
In the last decade, the movement for healthy, sustainable food has been growing exponentially, with consumption of organic foods growing from $8 billion in 2000 to $31 billion in 2011. We’ve seen an equally dramatic rise in the number of farmer’s markets and CSAs. Still, it’s a big jump to move from 4 percent market share, to changing national food policy. Tobacco was found to be harmful to health in 1950, and it took nearly half a century to meaningfully change laws.
The food movement is growing fast, but as a political force, it’s still in its infancy. Big agribusiness still controls the purse strings in Congress, and runs the show at the FDA. At least for now.
An ABC News poll found that 93 percent of Americans want to know if their food is genetically engineered. Even after a narrow loss against a heavily financed and deeply entrenched food industry, the rapidly growing food movement may be just getting started.
“The arc of history is long,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us, ”but it bends towards justice.” As we’ve seen time and time again, when enough people demand it, eventually, change does come.
In one of history’s most stunning victories for humane farming, Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Coles, will as of January 1st stop selling company branded pork and eggs from animals kept in factory farms. As an immediate result, 34,000 mother pigs will no longer be kept in stalls for long periods of their lives, and 350,000 hens will be freed from cages.
Not to be outdone, the nation’s other dominant supermarket chain, Woolworths, has already begun phasing out factory farmed animal products. In fact all of Woolworth’s house brand eggs are now cage-free, and by mid-2013 all of their pork will come from farmers who operate stall-free farms.
Coles and Woolworths together account for a dominant 80% of all supermarket sales in Australia.
The move to open up the cages was fueled by “consumer sentiment”, and it has been synchronous with a major campaign against factory farming of animals led by Animals Australia. The campaign features a TV ad, titled “When Pigs Fly”, in which an adorable piglet tells the story of animals sentenced to life in cramped cages, and then flies to freedom.
Meanwhile, in the United States, egg factory farms cram more than 90 percent of the country’s 280 million egg-laying hens into barren cages so small the birds can’t even spread their wings. Each bird spends her entire life given less space than a sheet of paper. And in a reality that does not please fans of Wilber or Babe, between 60 to 70 percent of the more than 5 million breeding pigs in the United States are kept in crates too small for them to so much as turn around.
There are laws against cruelty to animals in the United States, but most states specifically exempt animals destined for human consumption. The result is that the animal agriculture industry routinely does things to animals that, if you did them to a dog or a cat, would get you put in jail.
Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, explains: “Most of the anti-cruelty laws exempt farm animals as long as the practices are considered to be normal by the agriculture industry. What has happened is that bad has become normal, and no matter how cruel it is, normal is legal.”
But here, too, change is coming. Undercover investigations have led to a $497 million judgment against the now defunct Hallmark Meat Packing company, and to the recent temporary shutdown of Central Valley Meat Company over what federal investigators termed “egregious, inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.” California and Michigan have passed laws that will phase in a ban on battery cages for hens, and nine US states have joined the entire European Union in heading towards a ban on confining pigs in gestation crates.
Worried that consumers are starting to find out the truth about treatment of modern farm animals and will demand further changes, industry leaders are pushing for “ag gag” laws that would hide factory farming and slaughterhouse abuses from public scrutiny. Recently passed laws in Iowa and Utah threaten jail time for anyone working undercover and taking pictures or video of animals in factory farms without permission.
What don’t they want us to know? What are they trying to hide? What would happen if the veil was lifted and we saw the level of cruelty that has become the norm in U.S. industrial meat production?
A poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94% of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty, and that 71% of Americans support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms.
Most farmers don’t try to be cruel to animals, but they do worry about how to cut costs. And so long as consumers are kept in the dark about the real source of their food, farm owners have no economic incentive to do more than the minimum necessary to appease regulatory authorities.
Want to take action? Join the Food Revolution Network, an online community dedicated to healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food for all.
Or join the Humane Society’s campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary’s work for animal welfare legislation. Or if you want to save 100 animals per year, you can sign up for PETA’s free veg starter kit.
What Caused So Much Fuss? Here’s The “Pigs Fly” Ad From Animals Australia