Ethical Eating

Tofu, also called bean curd, is a food made by coagulating soy juice and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. It is a component in many East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. | Photo: | Tofu, Soy, Protein, Peta, Vegetarian, Vegan, Cruelty,

Is soy and Tofu big business, ethical eating, or both?

After accepting the assignment to answer the question, "Is soy & tofu big business, ethical eating, or both?" I found myself stumped as to how to proceed to writing this article. Normally, the appropriate approach to an either/or prompt would be to research each side of the issue, present both of them on their own terms, and perhaps conclude by presenting a bit of personal commentary in favor of one position. But in the present case, when I tried to follow the obvious process it quickly began to seem unworkable.

Since the focus is specifically upon soy and tofu and since the intended audience is the "animal conscious eater," it's clear from the outset that this article is meant to assume a vegetarian audience. If the question was whether alternatives to meat were more ethical in general, I, as a vegetarian, would have a clear argument to make. But as a tolerant and relatively non-ideological vegetarian, and indeed as a poor person, I'm not about to pontificate about which specific alternatives to meat conscientious vegetarians ought to be consuming.

There may be other perspectives on this, but I regard eating meat as wrong because it contributes to demand patterns which lead to the widespread killing and mistreatment of animals. That's all there is to it, and there is no comparable topic of concern when looking at other items in the grocery store. Sure, there may be noteworthy ethical issues with regard to particular brands and manufacturers of any number of products. But Nasoya, Azumaya, and Mori Nu aren't the sole representatives of tofu as a food choice. So when it comes to the peculiar question of whether tofu is big business, ethical eating, or both, it's fairly obvious that the answer is that it is at once both and neither.

There's nothing implicitly more or less ethical about eating tofu than eating quinoa, or rice and beans, or (provided you're not a vegan) cheese. Each of those things, and various other food combinations besides, will provide your body with complete proteins. If you've only recently become a vegetarian, no doubt some meat-eating friend of yours has expressed deep concern about exactly that. It may be indicative of tofu's status as "big business" that it seems to always provide the default answer to the question, "Where do you get your protein, if not from meat?"

Tofu is so lauded for its ability to fill this gap in the vegetarian diet that many people seem to have come under the impression that it's virtually the only non-animal source of complete proteins. But that's absolutely not the case, especially considering that amino acids from diverse sources can be synthesized into complete proteins by your body, meaning that in a post-industrial society in which food choices are practically limitless, protein-deficiency really isn't a problem that many people, even vegetarians, need to worry about.

Nevertheless there are certainly some vegetarians who believe that they have to eat tofu to maintain a balanced diet. It's extremely easy to imagine that this perception is a result of the sort of PR machine that helps to drive big business. And indeed it is. But the familiar praise for tofu's protein content among the vegetarian community is really more a matter of historical happenstance than it is a calculated program of public misinformation. In other words, companies that make tofu are highly profitable in large part because people have come to demand it. The profitability isn't unilaterally or artificially driving high demand.

Tofu has a long history in China, where it gained a great deal of profitability during the Ming dynasty before spreading to Japan. Much later, the versatile, easily produced food was brought to the Americas by Chinese laborers, and after the completion of the railroads, when immigrants moved into other areas of the economy tofu became a staple of Chinese restaurants even though it was then not generally recognized by American diners.

It was only in the twentieth century that Americans began to become widely aware of tofu. In the 1920s, a Western chemist living in China recognized the protein content of the product and declared it to be "the meat without bones," thus paving the way for its modern role as the go-to substitute for meat in an increasingly common vegetarian diet.

Around the same time, Dr. Yamue Kin, a dietician, inaugurated what might now be regarded as big business practices surrounding soy and tofu, by personally campaigning to see them integrated into the American diet. Her efforts included opening a tofu plant and a restaurant with a soy-influenced menu, as well as publishing a book titled The Soybean in 1923. Other researchers followed this with the first official nutritional studies of tofu.

It took time for the conditions to be ripe for tofu to be in high demand among American consumers. But by the 1970s, with the appearance of health food stores and macrobiotic diets, soy and tofu were already in a perfect position to enter emerging markets on the basis of prior scientific research and independent literature. Consequently, when the Nasoya company was established in the late 70s, it earned 60,000 dollars in its first year, and by its second the figure had already climbed to 200,000, thereafter reaching into the millions in the 90s.

If you think about it, it should come as little surprise that the impressive retail sales of tofu are much the result of demand patterns that were already in place. After all, vegetarians must be getting the idea that tofu is important to their diet from somewhere. And it's not from vigorous ad campaigns portraying one brand or another as an essential part of a fulfilling American lifestyle. That's really more the purview of the producers of products that continue to be more mainstream than tofu. Meat remains decidedly bigger business than any trendy vegetarian alternative to it. After all, advertisements for Tyson and Purdue products appear on television and billboards all the time. On the other hand, when's the last time you saw a commercial in which a happy family excitedly gathers around the dinner table to cut into a still-steaming brick of tofu?

And even if tofu was backed by the constant advertising that is bankrolled by multinational corporations, that wouldn't make a lick of difference to the ethical status of eating the stuff. The fact remains that you're still representing to the grocery market a choice to avoid causing harm to an animal. Nothing can threaten that unless it can be demonstrated that animals are killed in the production of tofu.

Granted, agriculture itself does kill animals, too, adding to the death toll from those that are sent to slaughter. In 2010, roughly 9.3 billion animals were slaughtered for food in the US, but farming and transportation caused the deaths of another 875 million. And soybeans are a huge portion of the American agricultural industry that is responsible for such statistics. Still, this only goes to illustrate that the unfortunate fact of consumption choices in the Western world is that ethics are sometimes a matter of choosing the least of several evils. There may be negative consequences associated with the purchase of any mass produced goods, of which tofu is one. But if you choose meat instead of tofu, you are accepting all the same unintended consequences, plus the obvious ethical consequence of deliberately killing an animal.

The growth in cultivation of soybean crops ' a twenty-five percent growth since 1998, bolstered by government subsidies, which exceeded two billion dollars in 2011 alone ' also goes to show that the big business aspect of soy is not simply a matter of companies selling pure bricks of tofu to eager animal-conscious consumers. The resource is grown for a wide variety of purposes. Indeed, one of the first proponents of the soybean in the United States was Henry Ford, who saw the potential for the crop to be used simultaneously in the production of food and industrial products.

You could also look at the labels on any number of foods sought out by vegetarian and non-vegetarian consumers alike, and you would better understand that the appeal of soy for major corporations has little, if anything, to do with people buying actual soy beans or the curdled and pressed whey derived from them and sold as tofu.

Soy has rushed into a waiting production line at times, either to solve real problems or to simply reduce costs for the manufacturer. Margarine was invented in the 1870s as a cheap replacement for butter, but it wasn't until much later that the application of the hydrogenation process to soybean oil gave it a thickened, spreadable texture. The use of soy in applications like this is neither supported by one's decision to buy tofu nor threatened by one's decision to reject pure soy products as "big business."

And so what if they are big business? I'd estimate that I am a great deal more anti-consumerist than the average liberal, yet I know better than to claim that a product is bad simply by virtue of being distributed by a large corporation. The problem is that the price tags on merchandise in American stores don't reflect the social costs of their production. In fact, it's frequently just the opposite, with prices being kept low with the help of practices that harm human beings, animals, and the environment. Yet corporations do occasionally behave responsibly, even beneficially. Meanwhile, simply having a higher price tag is no guarantee that a product is the more ethical choice.

The trick is to know where your food is coming from and how the associated companies treat workers, animals, and their responsibility to the rest of the world. No doubt this has been a driving force behind the growth of the "locavore" movement. When I visited Seattle some years ago, I was pointed towards a local shop that produced tofu in-house, where it could be purchased straight off the production line. Given the opportunity that this represents, to talk directly to the person responsible for sourcing the raw material and creating the product, one can be fairly confident that there are few unintended consequences of purchases from such a shop.

Those sorts of options do exist for people whose moral sensibilities demand that they avoid supporting large-scale producers. And if boutique tofu producers aren't available in your area, or if simply "local" isn't good enough for you, you can just buy unprocessed soybeans and make tofu in your own kitchen. All it requires is a stove, a curdling agent like Epsom salts or vinegar, some cheesecloth, and time. Nothing's less "big business" than something homemade.

Soy is just a protein-rich legume. Tofu is just a product derived from that legume. There's nothing implicitly ethical or unethical about either of them, and major companies are no more the owners of those products than Little Debbie is the owner of the idea of snack cakes. You can squeeze a tube of icing between two homemade oatmeal cookies and give yourself diabetes without leaving the house or you can give yourself diabetes by buying the version that's been mass produced, packaged and transported to your local corner store. (Full disclosure: I love oatmeal cream pies, deadly though they may be.)

Similarly, you can stand up against the slaughter of animals by purchasing packaged tofu from the supermarket, by purchasing it straight from the producer, or by making tofu in your own kitchen. The ethical status of your vegetarianism doesn't change as a result of any of those choices. It's up to you to decide what further efforts your conscience demands. If you feel comfortable buying the most prominent mass produced alternatives to meat, the burden of proof rests squarely on anyone who would criticize you for that choice. It is up to them to prove that there are moral consequences to buying Nasoya or any other brand. It would be up to me as a contributor to this magazine, if I knew of any such accusations. I'll certainly let you know if I ever become aware of any.

And if that time comes, it will still be up to you to determine how far back along the production line your ethical responsibility lies. In that case, I may not be the person to ask. After all, having been desperate for work I once took a job in a sausage shop and remained there for a year where, despite eight years' commitment to vegetarianism, I spent every day practically elbow-deep in the mangled flesh of innocent pigs. It never rose to the status of a severe moral dilemma because I regard myself as only being responsible for my own actions. I never had a direct hand in the killing of any of those animals, and I never purchased what I made, so the pigs were never in any sense killed for my sake.

If you fall on the opposite end of the spectrum and you believe that any material support, however remote, makes you complicit in the ethical failings present at any level of a company or industry, then you probably won't be ethically satisfied until you grow all of your soybeans in your own garden and control every aspect of the tofu production process to avoid the threat of unintended consequences.

I salute you if you're the sort of person to devote that much of yourself to ethical eating. But I certainly don't expect it. I just expect you to not eat meat.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:13 PM EDT | More details


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