Hexane extracted soy casts a ‘hex’ on nonorganic food makers

Posted by
September 10, 2013

A selection of so-called "healthy" foods that use hexany-processed soy ingredients

The Food Identity Theft blog that appeared here at the end of August, Five snacks that use healthy hype to hide unhealthy ingredients, created quite a stir with Facebook readers, with many asking for additional information about hexane and soy, and most of all specific facts about the solvent and its use in CLIF BAR ingredients.

The short answer about CLIF BAR is yes, the nonorganic soy protein isolate used in CLIF, LUNA, MoJo and the BUILDER’s bars are, according to the company, hexane-extracted. So if that’s all you wanted to know, you can stop reading here. But there’s really much more to the story, including how the CLIF company justifies its use of hexane-processed soy. And with numerous so-called “healthy” snacks, vegetarian items, and even infant foods containing this “highly processed material that uses a dangerous toxic substance in its manufacture,” the issue goes way beyond the CLIF BAR question so many readers have asked.

In 2009 The Cornucopia Institute issued a report, Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Foods Industry, bringing to light what it called the “dirty little secret in the natural foods business” –  the widespread use of the toxic, air-polluting chemical hexane –  which is prohibited in organic food processing but “widespread in the ‘natural’ soy industry.”   The group followed up with another report about hexane and soy in 2010, issuing a nutrition bar and veggie burger shopping guide, and focusing on the significant advantages in buying 100 percent organic foods.

From gasoline to snack bars to baby formula

Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining. It is a neurotoxic, highly flammable, volatile chemical that is used in industrial glues and cleaning solutions. It can also be found in gasoline and numerous other consumer products, mostly adhesives, sealants and coatings, such as Krylon and Rust Oleum. But the most common use of hexane is as a solvent to extract the oils from nonorganic soy, canola and corn.

The Cornucopia Institute’s Behind the Bean report cites examples of just how dangerous hexane can be to workers and those transporting the chemical (such as the operator of a tanker truck who was injured when 4,500 gallons of hexane he was carrying burst into flames in 2001, the two workers killed in a 2003 explosion at a Iowa soybean processing plant and the 200 people killed and 600 people injured in a blast in Mexico in 1992). But one of the big questions many consumers have is: are there are any hexane residues remaining in all these nonorganic soy products?

The Cornucopia Institute had samples of hexane-extracted soy products sent to an independent laboratory for testing, finding that while there was less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of hexane in the oil, the soy meal tested at residues of 21 ppm, and the soy grits contained 14 ppm. The Food and Drug Administration, however, has set no residue level for hexane in foods, nor does it require that any at-risk food products be tested for hexane.

The group says in its report that “(t)he effects of consuming foods that contain hexane-extracted ingredients are not known,” also stating that  hexane “has been tested for its effects on workers” but not “for its effects on consumers as part of the human diet.”

But perhaps the most disturbing use of hexane-extracted ingredients is in the manufacture of infant formula, with The Cornucopia Institute noting that “nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted.”

Food Identity Theft contacted Abbot Laboratories, makers of Similac, and Mead Johnson, which makes Enfamil, including the soy-based ProSobee brand, to see what they had to say about the hexane-processed ingredients used in their formulas.

The Abbot specialist read from a prepared statement saying that many edible oils that have a “long history of safe use throughout the world (are) produced using the hexane extraction method,” and that the soy protein used in the company’s formulations are extracted this way, with “our suppliers’ standard practice” being to remove traces of hexane, adding that Abbot products have “been safely fed to millions of babies…and they have grown and developed normally.”

Mead Johnson told us that they had no information about hexane and soy; however a member of its product information department called back the next day, not about the soy, but to tell us its fatty acid additives DHA and ARA, are “purified” with hexane and that the “suppliers’ standard practice” is to remove all “detectable” traces of the chemical (the DHA and ARA are produced from laboratory-grown algae and fungus).

Other companies we contacted included Lightlife foods and CLIF BAR. Lightlife’s response was an interesting one, something Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute described in an email as a good example of “wordsmithing their response.”

When asked if Lightlife uses hexane-extracted soy ingredients in its Smart Dogs Veggie Protein Links, we were told the company “does not use hexane or any other chemicals like it in the development or manufacturing of our product.” When asked who supplies the company with its soy protein isolate, we were told that may not be something they can reveal, but would “send the question along…”

Kastel’s response was that “if the ingredient list includes any ingredient made from soy and it does not state that it is either certified organic or expeller-pressed, it is likely that the soybeans were processed with hexane. Lightlife is owned by ConAgra and is not certified organic,” he pointed out, adding that the manner their response was worded  is a way to “get away with misleading consumers.”

And then there’s CLIF BAR, the subject of all that Facebook frenzy. A company spokesperson told us in a phone interview that the soy protein isolate it uses is “extracted using that solvent,” and that it gets a “guarantee from our suppliers that there is no detectable hexane left in the product.” She added that CLIF BAR has yet to find an alternative “that meets our quality and quantity standards,” but is continuing to look for one.

And how does a company that claims its core mission is to “restore our planet for future generations” comment on the environmental aspects of purchasing large amounts of hexane-processed soy?

“Our supplier uses a closed system,” she explained, “so none of the hexane gets released into the environment. … They reuse it … and there is no human contact with the substance.”  But while she would not reveal the name of that soy processing company that has managed to contain all of its hexane, perhaps they ought to disclose it to Perdue AgriBusiness which is currently embroiled in a heated debate with residents in rural Lancaster County, Pa., where Perdue hopes to build a hexane-processing soybean plant. The plant design, said to use the “latest hexane recovery technology,” and which would reportedly recycle 99.9 percent of the chemical, is still expected to  release a minimum of 220 tons of hexane into the environment annually.

The Cornucopia Institute advises that avoiding soy protein products “bathed in hexane” can be achieved by simply buying only USDA-certified organic products. It also publishes two guides grading both veggie burgers and nutrition bars.

There are “alternatives” for the companies that use hexane-processed soy,  Kastel maintained, “but (it) would probably cut into their bottom line.”