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.
In the West, however, the bean-alternatives are not dharma-friendly satvic foods, but a host of fast-food and junk. Given that choice, shouldn't the spiritually inclined choose tofu over a Twinkie, a food so processed that one can hardly make a guess what's in it? Not necessarily.
An argument can be made that soy, especially in the form of tofu, isn't particularly good for you, and it certainly isn't unprocessed. That argument goes this way: Tofu is made by cooking soybeans into a mush, then placing them in cheesecloth like sacks and squeezing to remove the creamy tofu from the husk of the soybeans. The tofu is then poured into moulds with a hardening agent, traditionally a liquid called nigari made from pouring water through large bags of seasalt. Thus, tofu is an extremely refined product, about as bad as bleached, chemically-processed white flour.
Don't get me wrong. I don't question soy's health advantages. For vegetarians like me, it can be a virtual one-stop-shop in terms of nutritional benefits. Young soybeans, like the edamame that is a popular street-snack in Japan, also happen to be delicious.
There are plenty of soy products--White Wave's Silk soy milk among them--that use whole soybeans, and are touted as "raw" food. But even many of these are often transformed, using a beauty chest of flavorings, preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers and synthetic nutrients, into what has been called a "New Age Cinderella." The more American soy barons like Steve Demos integrate soy into the American palate, the farther it seems to stray from the path of enlightenment.
However, it wasn't taste on which my father's soy journey was founded. It was his search for the fountain of youth. An American friend unwittingly added fodder to Dad's fire by raving about soy's isoflavonoids, which, the friend said, have reversed the aging process in laboratory rats. Encouraged, Dad bought several packets of "tofu pups", a soy version of hot dogs eaten by vegetarians who, whether as a gesture of patriotism or perhaps pointed dissent, want to eat a meat alternative to America's most famous food. Dad's motivation was less clear, as he had never eaten hot dogs before--nor was he likely to, given that we are a vegetarian family. The only statement he made about his sudden passion for tofu pups was his announcement that "the French call their hot dogs chien chaud."
The tofu version of the chien chaud, however, proved to be staggeringly bland, even after we dressed it up with ketchup, salsa and mustard. The tofu ham was even worse and the tofu bologna took the cake for the worst tasting soy product we had ever eaten. So, there we were, left with three packets of tofu slices in flavors that nobody wanted to touch.
No doubt, there are ways to render soy palatable--edamame is one example, as are the equally delicious soy nuts--and it's true that foods that are considered good for you generally taste bad--or at least not as good as those that kill you. But if you ask me, soy's spiritual angle may be that it will cause you to renounce culinary pleasure and the world altogether and thereby achieve Nirvana.