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These days, taking the road less traveled in search of a diet free of chemicals and pesticides is not for the faint of heart. Even vegetarian burgers, once thought of as a healthy alternative to ground beef, is fraught with chemical minefields.

Based on research conducted by the Cornucopia Institute, unless a soy-based vegetarian burger is certified organic with the green USDA Organic seal on the package, it almost certainly contains hexane-extracted soy protein. Hexane is a neurotoxin and a petroleum by-product of gasoline refining.

Food manufacturers make conventional soy protein by immersing soybeans in a “hexane bath” before they are further processed into ingredients such as oil, soy protein isolate, or texturized soy protein (TVP). High heat and high pressure are then used to texturize the soy protein.

According to Cornucopia’s report, “Behind the Bean” [pdf], hexane-extracted soy protein is found in the vast majority of nonorganic foods with soy ingredients marketed to health-conscious consumers and vegetarians. Its use is a cost-effective and highly efficient method for separating whole soybeans into soy oil, protein, and fiber.

Chemical solvents such as hexane are listed as a “hazardous air pollutant” by the EPA, and is strictly prohibited in organic food processing, but hexane is used regularly in the “natural” soy industry in soyfoods such as vegetarian burgers, nutrition bars, and protein shakes. Hexane is used to process nearly all conventional soy protein ingredients.

“For example, Gardein™ is a Canadian company that produces meat analogs—soy-based ‘chicken’ and soy-based ‘beef’—for brands and private labels including Yves Cuisine®, Morningstar Farms®, Trader Joe’s, and It’s All Good Foods®, and for grocery store prepared foods departments such as Whole Foods. While the company describes its process for making these meat analogs as ‘pure and simple’, it does not mention that it starts with hexane-extracted soy protein.”

As the Cornucopia Institute points out, consumers who choose these foods have been misled into believing they are making a healthy and environmentally friendly decision; they have no idea the soy “chicken” or vegetarian burger they’re buying is processed with hexane.

And Cornucopia also advises that certain foods bearing a “made with organic ingredients” label, such as Clif Bars, contain conventional soy protein, which is hexane extracted. They note that products such as Clif Bars with the label “made with organic oats and soybeans” are required by law to have 70% organic ingredients—the remaining 30%, however, can legally be hexane extracted — “even foods with the ‘certified organic’ label could have minor hexane-extracted ingredients, such as soy lecithin, historically not available in organic form, and DHA oil.”

Even though residue tests confirm that hexane appears in soy-based products — including soy-based infant formula, energy bars, protein powders, and meat substitutes — scant research has been conducted concerning their effects. And the FDA does not require food manufacturers to test for hexane residues.

But Hexane residues are not the only harmful residue substances U.S. food regulators allow in our food supply. As we recently pointed out, beef containing pesticides, veterinary antibiotics as well as a host of heavy metals including copper, lead, cadmium, and arsenic is sold to the public because federal agencies have no set limits for the contaminants.

In 2008, 92% of soybeans grown in the U.S. were genetically engineered. In states such as Iowa and Indiana, the percentage is even higher—95% and 96%, respectively.

Highly processed soy protein ingredients are increasingly found in processed foods, as well as 25% of the infant formula sold in the United States. Some industry insiders estimate that as many as 50% of organic soybeans consumed in the United States are imported from China where organic oversight is questionable.

Here’s a list of the major brands of vegetarian burgers on market that DO and DO NOT contain hexane-extracted soy protein.

Hexane-extracted soy ingredients used in the following brands:
Amy’s Kitchen
Boca Burger, conventional
Franklin Farms
Garden Burger
It’s All Good
Morningstar Farms
President’s Choice
Soy Boy
Taste Above
Trader Joe’s
Yves Veggie Cuisine

No hexane-extracted soy ingredients used:
Boca Burgers “Made with organic soy”
Helen’s Kitchen
Morningstar “Made with organic”
Superburgers by Turtle Island

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper