The recent horse meat scandal has definitely dented out appetite for processed meat products, but for those who already felt squeamish about eating meat, these unsavory relations have been the last straw.
"Its enough to make you become a vegetarian" they say, which is great news for sales of vegetarian foods in general and imitation meat products.
You can buy a wide range of meat replacements, such as: lamb-style roast, meat free turkey, fish style steaks, duck pate, and veggie mince. Health food chain Holland & Barrett reported earlier this month that sales of their veggie burgers were up by 17 percent while vegetarian "beef roast" was lifted by 50 percent.
The main ingredient of these meat products is a modern type of soy, which was first manufactured for food use in 1959.
Labeled under "vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein or soy protein" it is mainly made from highly processed types of soy flour called "concentrate" or "isolate"
The use of these soy ingredients is not restricted to meat lookalikes. Even if you don't avoid meat, there is soy in a number of products, from cheese spreads, non dairy creamer, protein bars and ice cream.
If you study the label on a pre made beef burger, you will often find it contains "soy protein isolate" which is a cheap filler to bulk out the meat.
The soy bean is cultivated world wide with the biggest supplies coming from Brazil and the US. Once the oil has been extracted, the solids that remain are then processed to obtain the pure protein.
Up until the eighties, soy protein was seen merely as a by product of the soy oil industry, but then US soy companies set about making it more profitable by promoting it as a "health food," claiming that eating "soy" could give you stronger bones, and make you less likely to develop breast, colon and prostate cancer.
These claims were largely based on research sponsored by soy companies and on epidemiological studies that show certain associations between things.
For example, because heart disease rates were lower in Asian countries than in Western ones, soy companies argued that this was because Asian people consumed more soy. Soy was soon marketed as a "wonder food" until health virtues attributed to soy, were soon challenged by researchers.
In 2006 an American Heart Association review, of a decade long study of Soy's "supposed" health benefits claimed that soy did not help prevent cancer and in 2008 it was found that men asked to consume various soy products such as veggie burgers, soy milk, protein shakes and tofu had lower "sperm concentration" than those not consuming soy.
Soy beans contain naturally occurring toxins which include phytic acid (reducing the ability to absorb essential minerals such as iron and zinc), and trypsin inhibitors which impair the bodies capacity to digest protein.
These toxins are also found in other foods such as wheat and chickpeas, but in much lower levels. Supposedly processing soy is designed to substantially reduce or remove these toxins, but traces still remain in the final product. They also contain isoflavones, which is a potent plant compound that mimic the female hormone estrogen.
In 2011, European food Safety authorities scientific panel dismissed claims made by the soy industry that isoflavarones helped hair growth and protected cells against oxidative damage, concluding that soy and health benefits "had not been established". Meanwhile there has been suggestions that eating to much soy protein can be harmful because of its hormonal effect.
In 2003 The UK governments committee on toxicity identified three groups where evidence suggested that their might be a potential risk from containing large amounts. These three groups included: women diagnosed with breast cancer, babies fed on soy based formula and people with an under-active thyroid.
But the manufacture of soy protein also raises major concerns. While some soy food such as miso, tofu, soy milk/yogurt are lightly processed, the pure soy proteins, such as the ones you might find in vegan cheese or a veggie burger are commonly extracted by washing soy flour in acid aluminum tanks. This raises the possibility that aluminum (which is bad for the nervous system and brain) can leach into he product.
Another potential concern is the chemical solvent known as hexane. Hexane (is known to poison the human nervous system) and a component found in glue and cement, used to extract the oil from soy beans.
Through repeated exposure, people can develop neurological problems similar to those experienced by solvent abuses, yet the soy industry claimed that their was only traced residues of hexane in their finished product. It is one of the eight most common food allergies according to the US food and Drug administration. As soy protein is pale, odorless and almost taste-free many manufactures rely on sweeteners, artificial flavorings, salt and coloring to make their products more appealing to consumers.
So the irony is that in trying to avoid meat, vegetarians may be buying products with as many additives and industrialized ingredients that are found in cheap processed meats.
As this ingredient has been in our diet for only three decades, there is no tack record of safe usage. Think of all those soy lattes you hear being ordered in Starbucks. Do you think they are aware at how soy is manufactured? In the meantime, I am being cautious!