Food (Soy Protein, That Is) for Thought
By Emily Powell
The word “tofu” does not necessarily lend itself to incite mouth-wateringly appetizing images of deliciousness. For some, in fact, tofu means a block of pale, spongy, moist, rubbery “food product” that cannot be associated – nay, cannot be in the same sentence – as calming adjectives like “deliciousness”. To each his own. However, for those of us who are morally, ethically, nutritionally or otherwise motivated to omit animal meats from our diets and opt instead for less resource-intensive proteins such as soy, tofu is a blank canvas that can lead to wonderful experimentations of cultures and flavors. I try to eat as little meat as possible, often replacing hamburgers, grilled chicken or pork chops with rice and beans, tofu, or greek yogurt. This choice is principally motivated by my first-hand witnessing of the copious amounts of food available to us (…and how much of it is wasted) in the dining halls of my school, Arizona State University. Being exposed to the inefficiencies of our university food system sparked some kind of internal mission to be as efficient in my diet choices as possible. I know that plant and dairy-based proteins are a little more efficient than animal meats (though, I confess, I do love a good barbecue), but, I wonder, is soy protein like tofu really that “sustainable” on a large and long-term scale?
Vegetable-based proteins, such as soy and hemp, are less resource-intensive to produce than meat proteins (especially beef), because animals first require to be fed by plants such as soy, corn, and grain. In fact, according to a paper synthesized by Lucas Reijnders and Sam Soret published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, on average, 10 grams of vegetable protein are needed to produce 1 gram of animal protein. The specific statistics vary, however, by the animal you choose to eat. The protein efficiency of broiler chicken production is 18%, pork is 9%, and beef, of course, takes the cake with the lowest efficiency at 6%. This means, essentially, that of all the protein that cows need to eat in order to grow big and strong, only 6% is passed on to us in the form of a fat, juicy steak. Appetizing? Not for me.
Soy-based protein can be highly efficient in terms of resource (land, water) requirements when compared to animal proteins, yet we still are faced with other predicaments surrounding its mass production and consumption. For example, vast areas of rainforest are deforested each hour for soy and corn cultivation, and thousands of acres of cropland worldwide are dedicated exclusively to soy production, otherwise known as monoculture. The sacrifice of biodiversity in species-rich areas such as the Amazon rainforest for the fertile soil needed for soy cultivation causes loss of native species habitat, increase in soil erosion, and overall vulnerability of the ecosystem (cited from the World Wildlife Fund website included at the bottom). We, the United States, the world’s largest producer and exporter of soy (USDA), have begun to see environmental impacts of monoculture such as soybean production. These include the need to add supplemental pesticides and fertilizers and (possibly) the decrease in the number of honeybee colonies (aka our world’s most important pollinator). As Brazil and other Latin American countries continue to develop the undeveloped countryside, improve their transportation infrastructure, and plant soybean after soybean, the world’s production of soybeans for both human and livestock consumption continues to escalate.
To reflect on a more personal level, let us return to the idea of cooking with soy to supplement a vegetarian diet. Soy is what we call a “complete” protein – “complete” refers to soy’s content of all nine “essential” amino acids, which are compounds we need for functioning correctly but cannot synthesize on our own. Animal meats automatically include all nine essential amino acids, thus, they are considered “complete”. Some other examples of already-complete vegetarian proteins are quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed, and rice/beans. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete, meaning they lack in one or more of the nine essential aminos, and vegetarian consumers would benefit from supplementing this incomplete protein with another protein source that fills in the gaps.
The lesson of the day is that soy protein is an efficient and healthy vegetarian protein (as unappetizing as tofu might seem), but mass-produced on a large scale can be environmentally dangerous (like almost any other food stuff). Diversity of protein as a vegetarian is key, just as diversity of economy is key for those countries looking to benefit from the lucrative soybean industry. Soy might be a sustainable alternative to animal-based proteins, but it is best to consider it an option among the diverse, resource-efficient alternatives that should encourage us to veer away from the grocery store butcher.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.