A report published by the Cornucopia Institute (which describes itself as a “progressive farm policy research group”) revealed the “dirty little secret” of the soy industry, namely, that a solvent called hexane is commonly used in the processing of soybeans. Hexane is widely used in food processing to extract oil from vegetables and nuts. Not surprisingly, traces of hexane have been detected in some soy foods leading to over-wrought headlines like “Veggie Burgers Contain Poisonous Chemicals” and “Which Veggie Burgers contain Neurotoxins?”
Cause for concern but not panic
Hexane gas is indeed highly toxic. Breathing hexane fumes can cause nerve damage. Industrial use of hexane contributes to air pollution and is potentially hazardous to workers who work with it. But the whole “neurotoxins in your burgers” thing is pretty sensational. There is a big difference between breathing hexane fumes and ingesting trace amounts. The amounts found were tiny (well within allowable limits) and no adverse effects have been detected–despite decades of use in food production.
I’m not saying hexane is harmless or that we shouldn’t be concerned. But the reaction has been out of proportion. For a concerned but less hysterical response to this issue, see Eric Michael Johnson’s post on his Primate Diaries blog.
We’re shocked, SHOCKED!
For better or worse, hexane in the food supply is nothing new. But the natural-foods crowd seems to feel uniquely betrayed over the possibility of chemicals in veggie burgers. Why are they so surprised?
This is what soybeans look like when I harvest them from my garden:
And here’s one of the “natural” foods that everyone is upset about:
How shocked can we be that chemicals were involved? Processed food is processed food. If you want to avoid chemicals in your food (whether it’s hexane or the one we’ll be worried about tomorrow), consider making your own veggie burgers.