Q:Recent reports in the national press on the scandal of unlabelled genetically engineered soya beans produced in America and now on sale in Britain and Europe worry us. My particular concern is soya milk.

!AAt the Second International Symposium on the Role of Soy in Preventing and Treating Chronic Disease, held in Brussels in September last year, Dr Stephen Rogers, director of Plant Biotechnology at Monsanto Technical Center in Louvain la Neuve, Belgium, described how Monsanto and other manufacturers are already proceeding apace with biotechnology on plants, in order to better tolerate herbicides, and be better resistant to diseases and insects. Monsanto is satisfied that the “glyphosate tolerant” soybean (GTS) they’ve produced has “substantial equivalence” with the ordinary bean.

On the Monsanto drawing board at the moment are soybeans whose nutritional quality is “improved”, by altering the fatty acid composition, amino acid balance and boosting the levels of the isoflavones, or phytoestrogens, believed to be protective against a number of diseases.

Besides genetic engineering, the latest worry about soy products, specifically soy milk or soy formula, concerns the effect of these isoflavones on very young children. One recent study found infants fed soy formula were getting a daily dose six to 11 times higher in terms of body weight than the dose that has hormonal effects in adults consuming soy foods. Furthermore, the concentration of isoflavones in infants exclusively fed soy based formula was 13,000 to 22,000 times higher than the blood estradiol (estrogen) concentrations ordinarily found among this age group. Breast milk contains negligible levels of isoflavones (Lancet, 1997; 350: 23-7). What this means is the long term is anyone’s guess, as Asian infants have been fed diets high in soy formula (and before that, soy products) for centuries. The unproved worry is that high levels of phytoestrogens will cause male characteristics in females and feminize males.

Other worries about soy milk concern the method by which it is processed. The beans are placed in an alkaline solution and then heated to a very high temperature to kill certain anti nutrients. However, this makes the proteins difficult to digest (J Sci Food and Agriculture, 1971: 22: 526-35). Furthermore, the soaking solution itself produces a carcinogen, lysinealine, and lowers levels of a vital amino acid (Agricultural Services Bulletin 97, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1992). Finally, in soy milk, isoflavones are present in an altered form, with no anti cancer causing benefit (J Agri Food and Chemicals, 1961; 41: 7).

Your best protection is to buy organic soy milk that is guaranteed not to have been genetically tampered with. Write to the manufacturer of the soy milk you are using and ask them for assurance that no genetically altered beans went into the making of the product. Another possibility is to make your own by buying organic soybeans. And a final idea is not to drink any sort of milk, dairy or soy, in any great quantity; cereal like muesli can be made with juice or water, or even almond milk.

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