Stop! Put down that veggie burger. Back slowly away from the health bar. Do you know how that thing was processed?
Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for family farmers and has a history of crying foul about the misuse of terms like "natural" and "organic" in food products, has a new target. It's pointing a finger at health food companies that use what it describes as toxic chemicals in the processing of a major ingredient, soy protein.
Charlotte Vallaeys, farm and food policy analyst at Cornucopia, said that people are buying what they consider "healthy options" at grocery stores, and are instead getting foods that "contain ingredients that were processed with a neuro-toxic and highly polluting petrochemical product called hexane," a byproduct of gasoline refining. The full report is here.
Soy protein isolate is an important product for companies that make veggie burgers and fake meats, as well as health bars. Among other things, it allows them to list very high protein content on their labeling. Protein is obviously important to vegetarians who aren't getting all the essential amino acids from meat. According to Cornucopia, manufacturers can also produce soy protein isolate with a mechanical press (thereby avoiding hexane) but that would be more expensive and require listing lower protein content.
Cornucopia names names. Among the high-profile natural health bars with "likely" hexane content are Clif Bar, Odwalla, Luna, Balance Bar, NuGo, Zone Perfect and others. Bars without hexane include Garden of Life, LaraBar, Amazing Grass, Nectar Bar, NuGo Organic and others.
Veggie burgers and meat substitutes with likely hexane processing, according to Cornucopia, include many of the best-known brands: Boca, Gardenburger, MorningStar, Trader Joe's, Franklin Farms and others. Hexane-free are Amy's (which switched after being contacted by Cornucopia, as did Nature's Path), Sunshine Burgers, Tofurky, Turtle Island Foods and Wildwood.
Cornucopia doesn't go so far as to say that soy protein processed with hexane is toxic to eat, but Vallaeys said she asked herself, "What would I do in my own kitchen? Would I fill my sink with a highly explosive chemical? Definitely not. Even if the industry says it removes the hexane, I, and I suspect many consumers, might be a bit reluctant to eat something that had gone through that process when there are alternatives to using it."
Did she say "highly explosive chemical"? According to Cornucopia, hexane gas ignited at an Iowa soybean processing plant in 2003, killing two workers. A number of other fatal explosions have occurred internationally, the group said.
I contacted both Boca and Clif Bar. There are, of course, two sides to this story. In a 2009 letter to Cornucopia, Clif Bar president and CEO Kevin Cleary said the company has "worked for years with a variety of vendors to find an organic soy protein isolate. To date, we simply have not found an option that meets our quality standards and in a quantity that meets our needs."
And a spokesperson for the company, Sue Hearn, said in an email to me that many natural foods, including cereals, meat alternatives (soy dogs and burgers, among them), salad dressings, lip balms and energy and nutrition bars, are processed with hexane.
According to Hearn, "Our suppliers have confirmed that there is no detectable hexane in the soy protein isolate that we use in our bars. And the FDA considers the process as safe."
Somehow "the FDA considers the process as safe" seems a bit weak from a company that prides itself on its green credentials, says in its 2009 report that "organic food is the foundation of our business," and prominently posts its "five aspirations" all over company HQ in Berkeley, California. Products using hexane processes can't be labeled organic. Clif Bar says, "We use organic ingredients in all our products," which is not quite the same as saying the products themselves are organic.
The FDA may not have raised an alarm about hexane processing, but its approach is hardly rigorous. According to CBS News (which referenced Cornucopia's report), "The FDA does not set a maximum residue level in soy foods for hexane, and does not require that food manufacturers test for hexane residues..." The EPA has associated chronic and long-term exposure to hexane (as might occur for workers in factories making glues and solvents) with "muscular weakness, blurred vision, headache and fatigue."
Boca called me back, but the person I talked to was not empowered to speak for the company. A promised follow-up has not been forthcoming. Boca was sold to Kraft Foods in 2000; Clif Bar remains independent.
Cornucopia has a combative history: In 2009, it went after Dean Foods, makers of Silk soymilk, for quietly shifting from organic to conventional soybeans without altering the "organic" packaging and barcodes. It also battled the USDA over the use of a toxic fumigant on almonds.
Geez, can't we just trust our natural food to be natural?