Review: The World of Soy

The World of Soy

Edited by Christine M. DuBois, Chee-Beng Tan, Sidney Mintz
University of Illinois Press
(352 pages)

Reviewed by Andrea Wiley
Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington


The World of Soy offers the reader a multiplicity of perspectives on soy (Glycine max), a legume of considerable economic and cultural importance. The book is loosely unified around the theme of changing ideas and practices regarding soy production and consumption, and includes consideration of soy domestication, evolution, and history, taste, and the introduction and acceptability of soy, including GM soy, in diverse populations. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the complexities of this particular food which has transformed from a legume cultivated, eaten, and entrenched within the cuisines of peoples in east and southeast Asia, to one produced in the Americas and largely consumed by animals or hidden in industrialized products of various kinds. The book is also a model for multidisciplinary scholarship on any food; indeed the editors’ introduction could serve as a general introduction to the study of any food commodity. Each chapter has as its focus an aspect of one of what appear to be two distinct but interrelated “worlds” of soy: the traditional and historical modes of production and consumption of soy products in east and southeast Asia, and, the more recent story of soy’s involvement in New World industrial agriculture, global geopolitics and trade, and the marketing of soy as a new and valuable food.

The root of both of these “worlds” is the domestication of soybeans in Asia, which Kaplan nicely situates within the larger context of legume and cereal domestication. Given the amino acid complementarity between cereals and legumes, and the strong connection often seen between these plant foods in agricultural societies, the question arises as to whether cereals and legumes were domesticated simultaneously, or if one followed the other. The archeological record suggests that this varied from place to place, although the relationship between grain and soybean domestication in east Asia remains unclear. Soy beans were domesticated ca. 3000 years BP, yet processing into contemporary products such as tofu does not appear to have been common prior to 900 AD.

As a domesticate soy presents a mix of valuable nutrients – most importantly oils and essential amino acids – but also some anti-nutritive properties such as anti-trypsin factors that inhibit protein digestion. The latter are denatured in cooking, especially in the process of making tofu. Huang’s chapter details the history of soy processing in early China, as it evolved from being cooked like a grain, to modes including fermentation, sprouting, grinding to make a ‘milk,’ and then precipitation of the solids in the process of making tofu. A detailed description of the process of tofu making in China is provided in Tan’s chapter; although tofu is now produced on a large scale in factories, it was largely a household enterprise and is surprisingly simple. Mao notes that while tofu has long been considered a food of the poor in China (although it had opposite associations in Vietnam, as Van Nguyen points out), there exist complex tofu feasts and a wide array of tofu preparations are served at high-end restaurants in China.

Tofu traveled throughout east and southeast Asia with Chinese migrants and Buddhist monks, for whom it was a valuable source of vegetarian protein, but the predominant modes of processing varied from region to region. Traditional processing included extensive use of fermentation, which often results in products with strong flavors. Soy sauce is just one example, and became the most widely available fermented legume in the world. Fermented soyfoods were especially celebrated in Korea and Japan, but as Mintz points out in his chapter, legume fermentation never took hold in European-based diets despite widespread usage of other fermented products (especially grains). Ozeki outlines the importance of fermented soybean products in Japan to a local ‘standard of taste.’ Indeed these are one of the two major elements of umami – often considered a fifth taste of ‘savory’ in response to foods that contain the amino acid glutamate (including fermented soy and mushrooms). In Korea, any form of fermented soyfood is referred to as chang. Like tofu, chang was traditionally produced in homes, which had to have sufficient space to store the fermenting beans. Households were distinguished by the quality of the chang they produced, but with the process now occurring on an industrial scale and urban Koreans living in apartment blocks, it no longer serves this function. It has, however, emerged as a key icon of pride in Korea’s distinctive culinary heritage. Tempe is the primary way in which soybeans are consumed in Indonesia; its production makes use of mold fermentation to make soybean cakes used in a variety of preparations.

Currently Indonesia imports its soybeans for tempe from the United States. In fact, the United States now produces one-third of the world’s supply and exports about half mostly to Europe, Mexico, Japan, China and Taiwan. Collectively the U.S, Brazil and Argentina produce about eighty percent of the world’s soybeans, and herein lies the second “world” of soy. DuBois’s chapter outlines how soy was introduced into the US in late eighteenth century, but didn’t really gain notice until one hundred years later. The surge in soybean production occurred in part as a consequence of widespread infection of the cottonseed crop, which had been an important source of edible oil. Soy’s primary value in the U.S. was an a source of oil (both for edible and industrial products) and protein for animal feed. Its strong flavor met with resistance as an edible oil for humans, but subsequent processing rendered it more palatable. Use in industrial manufacture declined after World War II as petroleum replaced food-based oils for industry.

Soy meal became a feed for chickens, which are the primary consumers of soy protein in the U.S, followed by pigs. People consume less than three percent of the soybean supply, and thus ingest soy indirectly as chicken or pork. Notably the consumption of these meats surged in the post WWII period and co-occurred with greater soy production as the market for soymeal for animal feed expanded. The dramatic rise in soy production further enabled the global spread of American-style meat production practices. In an odd parallel, soy also appears in myriad meat substitutes, from textured vegetable protein crumbles to tofu hot dogs. In the U.S. as well as Brazil (as the chapter by DeSouza illustrates) soybean production is dominated by large corporations who export the crop, thereby reducing landholdings for smaller scale production of food crops for the domestic market (such as manioc, rice, corn, or beans in Brazil). Furthermore, the relatively strong taste and odor of soy has prevented widespread adoption in Brazil, where soy has become known as the “legume for the pigs and the poor.”

Because soybeans are relatively easy to cultivate on land not suitable for other crops, prevent erosion and fix nitrogen in the soil, and because they are produced in vast amounts in North and South America, soy has been promoted in a variety of developing countries. In Bangladesh soy was part of the U.S.’s “Food for Peace” program, and is now promoted there by the Mennonite Central Committee. There remain very low rates of domestic production and consumption Bangladesh in part due to the lack of a supporting infrastructure but also due to the fact that most Bangladeshis are too poor to purchase meat, and hence there is little opportunity for growth in a market for soy as animal feed. Soy has had quite a different fate in countries in West Africa, where soy was able to substitute for the seeds of the African locust bean tree in making of a fermented condiment daddawa. In fact, soy is now the main ingredient used for its production in Nigeria. Soybeans have also found a role as a milk substitute in the making of an unripened cheese. Thus local technologies were appropriate for soy processing and soy could be used for products that were similar to existing dishes (see the chapter by Osborn).

While soy has tremendous value in both its traditional and industrial contexts, its currency is remarkably different. This value manifests in soy’s centrality to many Asian cuisines, but it ‘hides’ in others, an essential, but invisible presence surreptitiously added to foods served to ‘captive’ audiences such as prisoners or schoolchildren in countries such as the U.S. As such the story of soy has strong parallels to corn and its industrialized step child, high-fructose corn syrup as so deftly described by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Yet soy has also been able to establish an identity as a “health” food, whether as polyunsaturated oil substitute for saturated (or trans) fats, a source of isoflavones with weak estrogenic properties to ameliorate symptoms of menopause, or as a staple of vegetarian or vegan diets. One topic that would have been interesting to include is soy milk, which has been produced and consumed in Asian countries and is increasingly accepted as a valid dairy milk substitute in the U.S (and large dairy processors now own soymilk brands).

In sum, the chapters in The World of Soy are all remarkably informative and contribute greatly to our understanding of this food that maintains multiple identities and meanings across the world. Soy remains embroiled in contemporary controversies of various kinds, from debates over GMOs (half of all soy production is GM), agricultural consolidation and policies, and health claims. These are articulated in the chapters by DuBois, DuBois and de Souza, as well as the conclusion by DuBois and Mintz. In the conclusion DuBois and Mintz might be faulted for a kind of over-zealous promotion of soy as a delicious and nutritious food with the potential to contribute to improvements in global nutrition, but this is tempered by their commitment to a more critical anthropological perspective that elucidates the complexities of soy in diverse socio-cultural and political-economic contexts.

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