Dirty Little Secret in the Natural Foods Industry: Toxic Chemical UseNovember 28th, 2010
Solvents Banned in Organics all too Common in “Natural” Food Production
CORNUCOPIA, WI—Since 2009, when research by The Cornucopia Institute exposed “the dirty little secret” of the soyfoods industry, vocal concern from consumers over the use of the toxic solvent hexane has led several prominent food companies to switch to cleaner soy ingredients in their veggie burgers and nutrition bars.
The Cornucopia Institute has now released a new report to assist consumers and wholesale buyers in identifying brands that use hexane-extracted soy protein ingredients from those that have committed to cleaner sources. Toxic Chemicals: Banned In Organics But Common in Natural Food Production also contains an online guide for buyers who want hexane-free soy foods (viewable at http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/11/hexane-soy/).
“Many soy foods, thought of as ‘healthy options’ on grocery store shelves, contain ingredients that were processed with a neurotoxic and highly-polluting petrochemical compound called hexane,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based non-profit farm policy research group. “We are pleased to see that several industry leaders have responded to consumer concerns by switching to ingredients produced without the dangerous chemical.”
To process common soy ingredients, such as soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate, manufacturers immerse whole soybeans in a bath of synthetic, petroleum-based solvents. Hexane is classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Cornucopia has also created a short video, available on YouTube, spotlighting the hexane issue, and a food guide for name-brand soy products.
Cornucopia said they hoped their report would help consumers understand that buying organic foods, with the ‘USDA Organic’ seal, assures that the soybeans in their food were not immersed in petrochemical solvents, an almost universal practice in conventional food processing.
Most consumers already know that organic soybeans were not grown with toxic pesticides and other agrichemicals and are never grown with genetically engineered seed.
“We’re happy to see that responsible companies, truly dedicated to the integrity of their brands and maintaining consumer confidence, take this issue seriously. These are the heroes in the industry, and they are listed in these guides so that consumers can support them in the marketplace,” states Mark Kastel, Co-director of The Cornucopia Institute.
Companies that showed their commitment to safer and more environmentally responsible food production practices by eliminating the use of hexane in their products include industry leaders Amy’s Kitchen and Nature’s Path.
“Amy’s is a family-owned business, and we take great care to make healthful foods with organic ingredients,” says Andy Berliner, CEO and Co-founder of Amy’s Kitchen. “Because of concerns around hexane, we have eliminated the use of hexane-extracted soy protein in our four products that contain soy protein concentrate.”
Other companies have been aware of these issues since they started making soy foods, and have gone to great lengths to make sure none of their products contain hexane-extracted soy protein ingredients. “We do not use the industrially manufactured hexane-extracted soy proteins, even though the issue is currently flying under the radar of most consumers,” says Seth Tibbott, CEO and founder of Turtle Island Foods, makers of the popular Tofurky meat alternatives.
“Our experience shows us that once people learn about the hexane process, they are generally startled and actively seek out food from non-hexane sources,” adds Tibbott.
Cornucopia’s guide lists meat alternatives/veggie burgers and nutrition bars. “Energy bars with hexane-extracted soy ingredients are found alongside organic bars on shelves of natural foods stores, and very few consumers know that there is this substantial difference between them,” says Vallaeys. “The problem is that some companies tout themselves as using only the most wholesome ingredients, and as being ‘Earth-friendly,’ when a look at the ingredients list shows a much different reality,” she adds.
A particularly egregious example is industry leader Clif Bar, which states on its packages that it is “made with organic soybeans,” while one of the first ingredients (listed by predominance in the recipe—coming before soybeans) is a hexane-extracted soy protein isolate.
Nature’s Path, makers of Optimum Bars, responded positively to consumer concern about hexane by eliminating all hexane-extracted ingredients. Unlike Clif Bar, which uses hexane-extracted soy protein, Nature’s Path has never sourced primary ingredients extracted with hexane, although one of their minor ingredients, soy lecithin, was hexane-extracted until they learned of an organic alternative through The Cornucopia Institute’s research and associated consumer interest.
“At Nature’s Path, we strive to improve and better ourselves every day—even though we’ve been at it for decades. We discovered that a micro-ingredient wasn’t the best choice, and thanks to a close relationship with our customers, they told us. And together, we always manage to find the best way forward in our commitment to always being organic and constantly working towards a more sustainable world,” says Arran Stephens, founder and CEO of Nature’s Path Foods, Inc.
“This is exactly what we’d hoped our research would be used for, not only to shift market share, but to encourage manufacturers to evaluate their sourcing and make improvements. These are ethical business that we hope will be rewarded in the marketplace,” says Kastel.
One other problem with hexane extraction is that it is not widely known, even among manufacturers sourcing raw ingredients. It is a common processing agent for soy oil, soy meal (fed to livestock) and soyfood ingredients, and is an inexpensive tool for high protein extraction. Because it is a processing agent, not an ingredient, companies are not required to disclose to consumers (wholesale or retail) that it was used in the production of their ingredients.
“Consumers have many choices when shopping for nutrition bars and meat alternatives, and the ‘certified organic’ seal assures consumers that they are buying a product free of hexane-extracted soy protein ingredients,” says Vallaeys.
While other countries set legal limits of hexane residues in foods, the US Food and Drug Administration does not require that food companies test foods for hexane residues.
It is therefore the responsibility of individual companies to commit to sourcing soy protein ingredients that were produced using alternative, cleaner and more environmentally friendly methods. The Cornucopia Institute’s report and guide helps consumers identify these companies.