Is Your Veggie Burger Toxic?

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Vegetarians and chemical-shunning consumers take note: Many popular brands of soy burgers may contain the chemical hexane, a known neurotoxin and classified air pollutant, according to a recent study conducted by the sustainable and organic agriculture nonprofit Cornucopia Institute. The study was reported on by MotherJones.com earlier this week and subsequently picked up by CBSNews.com. As of today, whether the seemingly super-healthy soy burger is a chemical threat has sparked a national debate between meat-eaters, vegetarians, and many healthy omnivores simply looking to reduce their body’s toxic load. What’s a soy-burger lover to do?

First, to understand the brouhaha, we begin with MotherJones.com, which reported that hexane is added to soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and texturized vegetable protein in order to separate oil from protein to make a lower-fat food. Burgers labeled as “all-organic” or patties that specify “organic soy” in their ingredient lists cannot contain hexane. Although hexane, a byproduct of oil refinement, has been registered by the EPA as a toxic air pollutant, the FDA does not regulate the use or levels of hexane in food. The chemical is also found in many conventional soy-based infant formulas.

The MotherJones.com story touched off a string of commentary that the Cornucopia report was funded in part by the Weston A. Price Foundation–a pro-meat, anti-soy group headed up by the eponymous doctor–and should thereby be discredited. Today, MotherJones.com responded that the allegation was not true and that the foundation in no way sponsored the investigation. Still, the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit educational consortium on food, chemicals, and other health issues, published a blog today under its “Health Facts and Fears” department stating that hexane has been shown only to cause health problems in high doses in chickens and poking fun at what the organization perceives as in-fighting among the natural/sustainable community.

Whom to believe? Probably not those who say hexane should be ignored–the approach common among many conservative doctors when it comes to hormones, steroids, antibiotics, and other chemicals in our food. But how to ensure there’s no hexane in your favorite soy food? Buy organic. This recommendation may get repetitive, but if everyone chose organic, the category would be less expensive, and more importantly, our food would be safer for us and the planet.