Soy: Soul Food or Spiritual Sham?

The ancient Indian ayurvedic masters thought soy was spiritually suspect. And they hadn't even tasted tofu pups

BY: Shoba Narayan

 

My Dad's spirituality kick really began the day he discovered soy. He had recently taken up meditation, and somewhere he had read that soy's beneficial isoflavonoids would improve his concentration. Dad promptly went out and bought two gallons of soy milk.



Dad was not alone in thinking that soy gives those who consume it some sort of spiritual advantage. Tofu, a popular protein source in Asia, seems to come west dragging an aura of Eastern etheriality. The phenomenon may be more physiological than spiritual: soy is believed to interfere with zinc absorption, and zinc deficiency can cause a "spacey" feeling some may mistake for the "high" of spiritual enlightenment.

If soy confers a sense of spirituality, it may be because spirituality helped in large part to confer soy on the west. Steve Demos, the president of White Wave, a company with the modest goal of leading the "full integration of natural soy foods into the average American diet," spent three years in India learning, among other things, Vipassana meditation. While his fellow yogis emptied their minds and contemplated Nirvana, Demos obsessed about soy. "See, this guy does meditation, too," said Dad, when he discovered Demos's spiritual journeying on the White Wave website. "And he has made millions from soy."

Demos's is just one soy success story. Since he returned from India and founded White Wave nearly a decade ago, soy products have gone from the exotic to the expected, appearing in as many supermarkets as American standards like Cheerios. Business Communications Company, a market research firm, predicts that sales of soy products will hit $7 billion in 2005, an astonishing gain relative to the middling $100 million-worth made in 1998. For the past four years, the soy industry has grown at a staggering 22 percent annually, boosted no doubt by an FDA decision allowing any food containing 6.25 grams of soy protein to boast about soy protein's heart healthy benefits on its label.

It was just such a label that initially attracted my father. Believing that soy would not only reduce his cholesterol, blood pressure, and cancer-susceptibility, but also deliver to him eternal peace, thanks to its high concentration of antioxidants, Dad bought gallons of soy milk. It tasted good, but Dad proceeded to down it at a furious rate, sometimes diluting it with beer, till he got diarrhea. No matter: soy could do no wrong. "My body is ridding itself of toxins," Dad insisted.

What neither Mr. Demos nor my dad seem to have considered is that in ayurveda, India's ancient indigenous medical science made popular in this country by the mind-body guru Deepak Chopra, soybeans are considered a hindrance to spiritual enlightenment. Soy is a "kapha" earth food, and kapha foods, like oil, beans, and cheese, make both mind and body sluggish and are eschewed by those seeking higher mental planes.

One could argue that sluggish foods-known in ayurveda as "tamasic" foods-and the sluggish mind they produce are better for spiritual discipline than the feverishly racing mind, fostered by "rajasic" foods like garlic, onions and spices. Ayurveda favors most of all "satvic" foods, which are thought to encourage a clear spiritual mind. Milk and honey are considered satvic, and are the food of choice for Brahmin priests and yogis, New Age or otherwise.

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