The Origins of Soy in Western Culture

by Ruaidhri Saulnier

Do you know where the story of the soy that is in the milk and tofu you consume begins? The first English language mention of tofu was in 1603, compiled by Jesuits living in Japan. The second time, mentions it indirectly, believing it to be cheese of which they have plenty.

Tofu was grown in Europe as early as 1737 in the Netherlands, and later in France and England. Although it was grown as a curiosity in botanical gardens, rather than for commercial application. The first American mention comes from former American president Benjamin Franklin who encountered it in the 18th century, and confused tofu for a type of cheese.

Aware of his error he became curious about its origin. How widespread was tofus at this time? Historically uncertainty persists. It was first made in Europe in 1880, although not on a commercial scale. The Society for Acclimatization, founded in 1855, actively promoted research into soyfoods and soybean, publishing more than 30 articles on the topic. The first commercial tofu firm was established in 1878 in the USA, making tofu, fermented and unfermented.

“protein isolate could be used as a substitute for ivory”

Europe’s first commercial soyfoods manufacturer was established by a Chinese man, biologist, engineer, and anarchist, Li Yuying, (Chinese: 李煜瀛). The factory was founded to fund his political actions. A variety of soy-based products were made in this factory, including bean-curd jam, soy coffee and chocolate, eggs and bean-curd cheese in a variety of flavours, as well as flour and biscuits. One-hundred-twenty workers were brought in to work here as part of the Work-Study program to transform them from “superstitious and ignorant” individuals, to knowledgeable and moral citizens when they would eventually return to China, at the founding of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen.
Li started working on bringing soy to the west in 1905 at the Second International Dairy Congress in Paris. In 1910, he published a treatise in Chinese on the health benefits of soybeans and soy products, for example, its ability to alleviate diabetes and arthritic pain, which was later translated into French. In 1912, at the Society for Acclimatisation’s annual lunch, he brought a variety of soy products for them to try, in line with their tradition of bringing in new foods from not well-known plants. Following this, with his partner Dr. Grandvoinnet, a 150-page pamphlet, which included their series of eight previously published articles, “Le soja: sa culture, ses usages alimentaires, thérapeutiques, agricoles et industriels”. This 150-page document is considered by historians William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi to be “one of the earliest, most important, influential, creative, interesting, and carefully researched books ever written about soybeans and soyfoods. Its bibliography on soy is larger than any published before that time.”

During Li’s time in the factory, he and his engineers invented and patented new machines for producing soy milk and bean curd. The above historians further comment on these patents supported by original ideas, and allowing French-style cheeses to be made from these machines. These new machines also allowed him to create the world’s first soy protein isolate, called Sojalithe, after its milk protein counterpart, Galalith. Li claimed that this protein isolate could be used as a substitute for ivory, which with a modern vision, could be a sustainable alternative to the current sources of ivory: elephants, rhinos, sperm whales, hippopotami, etc.

The water footprint of soy is fairly high, especially when compared to other plant-based alternatives, but the truth is, the water footprint of similar animal products is much higher. (The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products, A.E. Ercin M.M. Aldaya A.Y. Hoekstra (2011)). The water footprint of 1 litre of soy milk compared to 1 litre of cow’s milk is half that of the most water-efficient country, and almost eight times less than the least effective country studied, and 28% of the global average. The efficiency of soy is even higher when comparing the water footprint of 150g soy burgers compared to equivalent 150g beef burgers, with six times smaller water footprint, all the way up to twenty-two times less, for an average of 7% of the water footprint. For the soybeans studied above, non-organic soybeans have a larger water footprint than organic soybeans.

The world has a lot of work to do to reduce dependency on animal products, but efforts to change diets in the west are nothing new. From the very first mention of “toufu” by westerners to the first commercial factory in Europe to the modern-day, where water consumption can be measured, soybeans, among other vegetable products, are shown to be more sustainable water-wise than their non-vegetable alternatives. We must ask the question: why have we not embraced these products further?

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