Let’s Talk About How We Talk About Soy

By Asta Feng

Recently, I read an article in the Food and Nutrition magazine that I received as a student member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This article, The Science on Soy, presents the scientific evidence on common questions about soy. One of the questions answered by this article is whether soy can adversely affect male fertility.

While the scientific evidence concludes that soy supplementation has no effect on male fertility, the article doesn’t delve into the idea of why this myth around soy and male emasculation persists. After all, soy isn’t the only food that contains phytoestrogens, plant compounds that resemble female sex hormone estrogen. Scientists in Canada analyzed the phytoestrogen amounts of commonly eaten foods and found that, on average, nuts and oilseeds had more phytoestrogen than soy products.

Soy was particularly singled out by Men’s Health magazine in 2009 when it published the brazenly titled article, Is This the Most Dangerous Food for Men? In the article, Men’s Health linked the declining masculinity of a former US Army attack helicopter pilot with his soy milk intake (it was a staggering 3 quarts per day). The article went on to misrepresent two scientific studies to claim that there is a “10 percent higher incidence of erectile dysfunction in Chinese men known to consume high amounts of soy compared to Americans who avoid it1.” By linking soy intake with emasculation and Chinese men, Men’s Health effectively continued with the historical narrative of weak and effeminate Asian men.

Food and nutrition have been used historically to justify white superiority and colonialism, especially in Asia. The first version of this food-borne weakness and femininity was rice. The 19th century American neurologist James Corning once wrote in his book Brain Exhaustion, Some Preliminary Considerations on Cerebral Dynamics, “Where mental courage, tenacity of purpose, and concentrated energy are required, the introduction of large quantities of fibrin and albumen into the system produces the most marvelous results. Thus, flesh-eating nations have ever been more aggressive than those peoples whose diet is largely or exclusively vegetable. The effeminate rice-eaters of India and China have again and again yielded to the superior moral courage of an infinitely smaller number of meat-eating Englishmen.” Corning not only provided a “scientific” grounding as to why Indian and Chinese men were weak, but he also effectively established why Englishmen (and Americans) are superior. The reasons were rooted in food.

The idea of weak rice-eaters wasn’t only found within scientific circles. It also was used to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was passed due to nativist fears of the increased immigration of Chinese laborers. The American Federation of Labor published a report in 1902 titled, “Meat vs. Rice; American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?2” The title directly pits American men and Asian men in opposition, implying that an Asian man cannot obtain American manhood because of what they eat.

With these initial links of Asian men and femininity, the trope thrived within all aspects of American life and continues to this day: Asian men are considered the least dateable, Asian men are stereotyped to have small penises, Asian men are among the least likely to be promoted to management positions. The term “soy boy” has become a new insult by the alt-right Neo-Nazis to describe men who they deem to lack masculine qualities, further equating soy consumption with femininity and further ensconcing this idea in racist ideology. The discovery of phytoestrogens in soy just served as yet another way by which science could be used to “justify” the femininity of Asian men.

So why am I making such a big deal of the historical context of soy and racism? As much as we like to think of science as existing in this void of objectivism, it does not. Science was used and will continue to be used as a tool by almost anybody to advance their own cause. As future healthcare providers and researchers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t perpetuate long held racial stereotypes as we provide advice and knowledge to our future patients and public.

 

Peer-reviewed by Matt Paysour

 

1. The article seems to have gotten to its 10% value by comparing 2 other articles that independently looked at rates of erectile dysfunction in China and the US. Both studies found that age, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes were positively correlated with the increased prevalence of erectile dysfunction in both populations. Neither original article mentioned soy.

2. Despite the sensationalist title, the contents of the report didn’t go into detail about how Chinese diet practices made them inferior. Instead, the report read eerily similar to current rhetoric about Mexican immigration today. The AFL was primarily against Chinese laborers because American workers feared that the Chinese would steal American jobs, were incredibly violent, and had no hope of assimilating.

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