November 14, 2022

Soybeans: They’re Everywhere and in Everything and There’s No Escape

I discovered I have a Soybean allergy over five years ago, and it has been the bane of my existence ever since. How I discovered the allergy is not relevant—and not a particularly entertaining story—but since I’ve slowly uncovered just how pervasive soy is and that it is used in literally everything.

At first, I thought it was simply a food intolerance since foods with soy gave me an awful stomach ache. Okay, it’s a lot worse than that, but this isn’t a place where I want to get particularly vivid with the descriptions. Like when I uncovered my lactose intolerance, I went to great pains to eliminate all soy from my diet.

Image created with the assistance of DALL·E, an AI system by OpenAI.

Since soy is cheap, many foods contain it. There are the obvious ones: edamame, tofu, and soy milk. Less obvious ones include vegetable protein isolate (essentially tofu) in many prepared meat items. Soy sauce seems obvious, but its usage is much more than just with sushi and in Asian marinades. Soy sauce can be used as liquid salt in most frozen foods and (Americanized) Italian food. Soy lecithin is an emulsifier found in most chocolate. There’s also soy flour present in most bakery items and breading for fried foods.

Since soy is one of the seven most common food allergies, the FDA requires nutrition labels (in the US) to list it as an allergen. Large restaurant chains typically offer allergy menus, making it easy to see which options contain no soy whatsoever and are safe for me to eat, right?

Wrong. The FDA doesn’t require restaurants and food manufacturers to list highly-refined soybean oil as an allergen. A scientific study that had SEVEN people with MILD soy allergies ingest small amounts of soy oil and noted whether they reacted within 30 minutes. Certainly the FDA is aware that a study of seven people is in no way significant and allergic reactions take up to 48 hours to manifest, right? Right?

I also have a violent reaction to soybean oil, so it’s essential to read all the ingredients in a food item because even if it claims not to contain soy, it might have soybean oil. Anytime I eat at a new restaurant, I specify that I am allergic so soybeans and soybean oil and ask what type of oil their fryer uses. Typically, I’m told that the fryer uses vegetable oil, and I have to remind the staff that soybean is a vegetable, so they’ll need to be more specific.

I have a tough time eating out. Restaurant staff are typically apologetic and do what they can to accommodate me. Since I also have issues with lactose and can’t each much dairy, that limits my options further. There isn’t a ‘safe’ food that never contains soybean or soybean oil, except maybe wine. I do frequently find myself in situations where there are no food options available to me at all.

At the grocery store, I have to be super careful reading labels. If something comes in a box or bag, is processed, or is already prepared in some way, It probably has soy. Bread, crackers, cookies, fried chicken, marinated chicken, salad dressing, pasta sauce, pop tarts, waffles, potato chips, protein bars, chocolate chips, frozen pizza, Rice-a-Roni, etc., etc. all contain soy.

My allergy also makes potlucks difficult. Since I can’t grill everyone on the exact ingredients in the food they brought, I typically won’t eat.

My best friend informed me one day that she had gotten into skincare. It sounded fun, and I’m all for taking good care of myself, so I asked her what products I should try. Specifically, I bought separate day and night moisturizers and a little spray bottle of rose water. Since I love the scent of roses, I particularly enjoyed spritzing the rose water on my face. My face, however, did not like it one bit. My skin became even more sensitive and began seriously breaking out. I looked at my meager lineup of new products and tried to figure out what was angering my skin. Thankfully, the rose water had a little infographic about some of the ingredients. One was glycerin—which the label said was derived from soybeans.

Glycerin isn’t always made from soybeans, but it almost always is. Whenever I shaved my legs and rubbed lotion on them, my skin felt like it was on fire. The second ingredient in my lotion was glycerin. Most bath products—lotions, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, hair styling products, sunscreens, deodorant, etc. have glycerin. Since glycerin is the trendy wonder ingredient for skin care, it’s also present in most cosmetics and makeup. At some stores, the staff has a tome of ingredients that will specify which plants were used in each product, and soy is almost always present. The only place I’ve found that doesn’t use soy glycerin is Lush.

You know that soft lubricating stip on razors? It contains soy. Toothpaste—that contains soy too. Boy, was I surprised when I learned that brushing your teeth isn’t supposed to feel like your mouth is on fire. I started taking multivitamins with biotin, but they made my stomach hurt. I threw the rest out when I saw soybean oil listed as the first inactive ingredient.

I still have slip-ups now and then. I got a salad at a restaurant, and the staff forgot to check the ingredients in the salad dressing, which ruined my digestive system and the rest of my evening. I ran out of shower gel the other day and borrowed my kids’, only for my skin to start itching miserably once I had spread it all over my body. I grabbed chicken tenders at the grocery store last week but realized they had changed the recipe, and I wouldn’t be able to eat them.

I wish I didn’t have to be so careful. I hate being the difficult one and by no means think my allergy makes me special. I don’t have any suggestions on what could make it better. Maybe there will one day be a virus that takes out the majority of soybean plants, and soybeans will become expensive and less pervasive. But until something happens to lessen our dependence on soy, I must remain vigilant and careful to avoid a simple little bean.

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