Food Labeling

Seeing Through the FDA's Soy Ploy

Why is the agency revoking a claim of soybeans' health benefits?


Viennetta / Dreamstime

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it would move to revoke a longstanding agency-authorized claim that soy-based foods can protect heart health. If an FDA rulemaking on the matter succeeds, the reversal on soy would be the first such revocation by the agency.

In proposing the change, the FDA says there simply isn't enough evidence to support an agency-authorized claim.

"We are proposing a rule to revoke a health claim for soy protein and heart disease," said the FDA's Susan Mayne, in a statement announcing the move this week. "For the first time, we have considered it necessary to propose a rule to revoke a health claim because numerous studies published since the claim was authorized in 1999 have presented inconsistent findings on the relationship between soy protein and heart disease."

The soy food industry is unhappy with the FDA's plans.

"The Soyfoods Association of North America is concerned that the FDA is proposing to modify the claim from unqualified to qualified," the group, which represents makers of soy foods, said in a statement this week. The group also says it will fight the proposed change.

I have no opinions about whether or not soy proteins (or any other foods) are good for you. Eat what you like, I say, or what you think you should eat. Or don't.

But I do have opinions about both the FDA's move this week and, more generally, the agency's dominion over food-related health claims.

The agency's authority over these (and other) claims dates to 1990, after Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). The law established "procedures whereby FDA is to regulate health claims on food labels[.]" FDA regulations soon followed.

Since passage of the NLEA, the FDA has approved a dozen health claims, including, for example, a claim that some fruits and vegetables can lower a person's risk of developing cancer, along with the claim that soy proteins can help lessen the risk of heart disease.

The FDA first proposed the soy health claim in 1998, and adopted the final rule the next year.

While the FDA's skepticism about soy might be new, others have long questioned health claims related to soy foods, notably even at least as far back as the proposed FDA soy rule.

"In September 1998, the Center for Science in the Public Interest [discussed] 'the overblown—and under-substantiated—world of soy claims,'" writes Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics. "This skepticism was soon justified by independent studies suggesting that substituting soy for other proteins in the diet might have little effect on the coronary risk of North Americans."

Though this is the first time the FDA has ever reversed course on its approval of a health claim, this is hardly the first time the agency has reversed its position on a food or food ingredient. In the 1970s, the agency attempted to ban the legal sweetener saccharin. The agency banned interstate sales of raw milk in the 1980s, after a federal court forced the agency's hand. Most recently, the agency banned oils that contain partially hydrogenated trans fats.

Even if it's successful, the FDA's proposal to revoke soy's existing health claim won't mean the end of food labels touting the connection.

Among other avenues, the agency says it'll permit makers of soy foods to continue to tout the connection through the use of another NLEA tool, the "qualified health claim, which requires a lower scientific standard of evidence than an authorized health claim[.]"

"Regardless of the outcome for this particular claim, the law already allows food companies to make scientifically-valid claims, and whatever FDA does won't change that," says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, in an email to me this week. "It also indicates the challenges for FDA in keeping up with all the latest science, which points to the need for more flexibility for companies, again as along as their claims are backed up by good science."

I agree with Simon that the FDA should be flexible. And I'll take her a step further by repeating my longstanding mantra about food labels: they should be open to any and all statements about a food that aren't demonstrably false. That issue rests properly with courts, not the FDA.

NEXT: The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer

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  1. I’m sure Mr. Linnekin has some opinions on “what foods are good for you”.

    And yeah, I could have put the close-quote after the period there, and it would have been an accurate quote. But in general, I prefer not to, unless quoting full sentences, precisely to avoid the need for constructions like “[.]”. I know it is considered non-standard in the U.S., but I think it is standard in Britain, and that it makes sense.

    1. Here on the American internet, we punctuate like Americans. If you don’t like it, you can “get out.”

      1. Welcome to the web; no punctuation needed.
        Or punctuate as you please, we are libertarians (mostly)
        Oh, and Tony.

        1. Welcome to the web; no punctuation needed.
          Or punctuate as you please, we are libertarians (mostly)
          Oh, and Tony.

          … and Britches.

          what the fuck is Britches?

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    2. There is a reason why it’s American English and not plain English that Americans speak and write.

      Good thing too or Englanders would be speaking German instead of plain English.

      1. “Compositors?people who layout printed material with type?made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. ”

        Yes, there is a reason, a very stupid one that should be ignored, just like the preference for location of periods and commas in relation to quotation marks in American English.

    3. It’s the switching back an forth that always seemed dumb. Periods and commas? In. Question marks and Exclamation points? Out. That’s not a rule, that’s just dumb.

      1. Any rule about punctuation and grammar is likely to be arbitrary. This doesn’t mean there don’t need to be runes.

        1. It isn’t arbitrary in British English. So…um yeah.

          1. Yeah, absolutely nothing about Brenglish is arbitrary. Nope. Say, what’s your favorite colour?

          2. All language is arbitrary signals.

        2. After finishing school, I started using semicolons and colons like a madman: like this; and this!

    4. I propose a compromise.

      Speak and write Canadian or Australian.

      1. sorry. Can’t manage as boring as the former or as nasal as the latter.

        1. “Can’t manage as boring”

          You really need to give yourself more credit.

  2. Reversing decades of farming welfare would be good too.

    Let the soy industry pay for and peddle their own advertising.

  3. The better question is why the FDA exist at all.

    1. Because there are many, many, agriculture businesses to donate to politicians.

  4. “This is one statement that *has* been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Twice!”

  5. Remember that 97.3 percent of scientists overwhelmingly agree that the scientific consensus holds that these soy deniers are paid by Big Meat to spout their flat-earther cover-up of dangerous protein emissions.

    1. Big Meat was not my nick name in college.

      1. It was mine, but that had to do with my body shape.

    2. Aha! They’re in bed with big meat!

  6. Related: has anyone seen this new alt-right insult “soy boy” being thrown around? I would guess it started on the Bodybuilding. com forums (their Misc. section was a surprising hub for the alt-right). It’s based on the idea that eating soy increases your estrogen levels, which to my understanding isn’t particularly well-supported

    But even they realize that. They’re just too entertained by their new insult to care. And I’m not gonna lie, it has a certain charm that “cuck” never did, and it doesn’t have the racial undertones. Plus the idea that a bunch of pasty autists who pretend to lift are out there insulting the manhood of everyone else is hysterical

    1. Cuck has racial undertones?

      I use it all the time. Heck, I call the PM of Canada Trudeau ‘cuck’.

      I like it and find it amusing.


      1. “Cuck has racial undertones?”

        To idiots. They seem to presume that cuckolding really means cuckolding by a black man, despite the actual origin and use of the word.

        1. Somebody should tell that to the alt-right trolls I’ve seen telling the people they argue with to “go back to throating Jamal”. You and Rufus may not mean it that way, but a lot of alt-righters do.

    2. Easy with the “pasty autist” stuff. Not all of us are pretending.

    3. I was getting “cuck” mixed up w a word I now see the consensus spelling of is “cack”, while I’d thought it was closer to “cock”.

  7. I don’t know about soy and heart disease, but the natto in the picture is supposedly by far the best source of vitamin K2 on the planet.

  8. So: did the FDA get it wrong in ’98, and leave people misinformed for two decades? Or did they get it right, and are now having a brain fart?

    And they say that government doesn’t give you choices!

  9. How can anyone trust a government that publishes “nutritional guidelines”, supposedly based on science, then reviews and revises them every five years?????


    1. Bowling Green, eh?

      More like *Kellysandra* Conway, amirite?

  11. “In September 1998, the Center for Science in the Public Interest [discussed] ‘the overblown?and under-substantiated?world of soy claims,'” writes Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics.

    You undercut your message with that reference – CSPI is a nutbag Naderite group, the food equivalent of the SPLC. These are some of the people who want sugar classified as a toxic substance, support all the oppressive food labeling laws and the junk food taxes and restrictions on advertising, issue regular scare articles around the holidays concerning over-eating, etc. They’re food Nazis.

    1. “Center for Science in the Public Interest”? It’s almost as if they never read Rand.

  12. Two words: manboobs.

  13. I don’t understand what we’re supposed to be seeing thru, nor what we’re seeing thru to. Was there supposed to be a point to this blog entry, or is it just reporting of current events as set in hx?

  14. Jeff Jones, a registered nurse who worked with Boucher at the Bowling Green Medical Center, described Boucher’s politics as “liberal.”

    “He was active on social media and said some negative things about the Republican agenda,” Jones said.
    Jim Bullington, a former member of the city commission, knows both men. He said Sunday that Boucher is divorced and lives alone. Bullington described Boucher as a socialist.
    “He’s pretty much the opposite of Rand Paul in every way,” Bullington said in an interview.

    The neighbors had been known to have “heated discussions” about health care, Bullington said, adding that Boucher is an advocate of a national health system.
    More details of attack on Rand Paul

  15. Ask five people about food, and you’ll get five different answers. Heck, I’ve even heard recently that milk is bad (not good) for your bones. How could that be?

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