Quite a few years ago some vegetarian friends in South Africa introduced us to delicious soya based foodstuffs that mimic chicken, prawns and beef burgers. But now I’ve found that, whilst a good source of protein for vegetarians and others who like to “cheat” by eating soya “chicken” or a soya burger, soya protein is usually extracted from soybeans by bathing the beans in n-hexane which is a chemical byproduct of petroleum refining. This has been documented by the Cornucopia Institute, an American non-profit farm policy research group.
The chemical bath extracts the soy oil, leaving behind “defatted” soya flour which undergoes further processing into the different forms of soya protein.
Hexane is also used as an industrial solvent for cleaning and degreasing all sorts of items. Although mechanically extracted organic soya protein is still available, that made from hexane extraction is cheaper and the yield is greater.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies hexane as a neurotoxin affecting the nervous system of humans and lab animals based on chronic inhalation. In 2009 the European Union (EU) set a hexane limit of 10 ppm (parts per million) for foods containing defatted soya protein products. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set any similar standards nor are US foodstuff producers s required to measure these residues in foods, says Cornucopia.
In 2009 Cornucopia had samples of soya meal and soya grits from the US tested and hexane residues of 22 ppm and 14 ppm, respectively were detected, far above the EU standard.
Since 2009, when the Cornucopia research exposed “the dirty little secret” of the soyafoods industry, vocal concern from consumers over the use of the toxic solvent hexane has led several prominent food companies to switch to cleaner soya ingredients in their veggie chicken, burgers and nutrition bars.
An online guide is available for consumers who want hexane-free soya based foods: http://www.cornucopia.org/2010/11/hexane-soy/
Cornucopia has also created a short video, available on YouTube, spotlighting the hexane issue, and a food guide for name-brand soya products.