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  • In the 1930s, American industrialist Henry Ford had one overwhelming obsession:

  • soybeans.

  • He extracted their oil to make enamel for painting his cars.

  • He crushed them into powder to make plastic parts.

  • And he encouraged American farmers to grow as much of the plant as possible.

  • But he wasn't just feeding soy to machines.

  • At the Chicago World's Fair, he hosted a soy-centric feast.

  • The ingredient had been a staple in Asian cuisine for centuries,

  • but Ford's dinnerfull of soy substitutes for dairy, meat and wheat

  • took the integration of soy into food a step further.

  • Today, soy is in so many foods that most people consume it every day

  • without even knowing it.

  • So what makes soybeans so versatile?

  • And is our global obsession healthy or harmful?

  • Soybeans have been cultivated in Asia as early as 5,500 years ago,

  • but since then they've spread across the globe.

  • Part of soy's success is that the crop can be grown easily and cheaply

  • in variable conditions.

  • And once they're grown,

  • soybeans have an incredibly high density of proteins and fats;

  • ingredients which in recent years have been used in everything

  • from mayonnaise to biodegradable plastic.

  • The ideal method for separating these components

  • depends on what you're trying to extract.

  • To isolate soy proteins, dehulled beans are sometimes pressed through rollers

  • to create thin flakes, and then steeped in water to draw out the proteins.

  • Alternatively, whole beans can be simply soaked and ground

  • into a whitish, protein rich liquid.

  • In both cases, the resulting substance can be used to make spongy foods

  • like tofu or filtered to produce soymilk.

  • And at the industrial scale,

  • these proteins can be used in various ways to help make processed foods.

  • Soy fats may be even more versatile.

  • In one extraction method,

  • soybeans are dried, cleaned, and then fed into an extruder.

  • This machine simultaneously heats and presses the beans,

  • producing a liquid containing soy oil and other fatty components.

  • By adding water and spinning the mixture, components are separated into two parts:

  • refined soy oil for things like salad dressing, and a substance called lecithin.

  • Lecithin is made of molecules called phospholipids,

  • which have a phosphate head that attracts water and a tail that attracts fats.

  • These features make phospholipids excellent for blending ingredients

  • that naturally separate from each other.

  • This process is called emulsification

  • and soy lecithins are used as an emulsifying agent

  • in a huge variety of foods.

  • For example, during chocolate production

  • phospholipids attach to both the fatty components of the cocoa butter

  • and the water-soluble sugar particles,

  • making them easier to combine into a smooth mixture.

  • A similar process happens in powdered products

  • that need to be instantly rehydrated.

  • Soy lecithin bonds with the water

  • and helps the powder disperse more quickly.

  • While there are other plants we can process for lecithin and proteins,

  • soy's mild taste and widespread availability

  • have earned it a place in thousands of food products.

  • But is it unhealthy to be eating this much soy?

  • Not really.

  • Soybeans contain many of the essential amino acids our bodies need,

  • making them one of the best ways to get these proteins without eating meat.

  • And the beans' fat content is largely made up of so-calledgoodfats

  • poly and mono-unsaturated fatty acids,

  • which can decrease cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

  • There are some compounds in soy

  • that may inhibit our body's absorption of various minerals.

  • And about 0.3% of the general population has a soy allergy,

  • which can be severe in rare cases.

  • But for many people, the biggest complaint about soy consumption

  • is the occasional increase in flatulence.

  • Outside our bodies however, soy is much more worrying.

  • To accommodate the soy farms needed for heavy industry,

  • processed foods and livestock feed, huge swaths of land have been deforested.

  • Between 2006 and 2017, roughly 22,000 square kilometers of the Amazon

  • were cleared for soy production.

  • In some regions, this has also led to the displacement of farmers

  • and indigenous communities.

  • So if we want to keep using soy and all its byproducts,

  • we'll need to find a way to do it humanely and sustainably.

In the 1930s, American industrialist Henry Ford had one overwhelming obsession:


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