You may have traded your hamburger for a veggie burger because of concern for your health and the environment, but—according to a recent report by Cornucopia Institute, a research and advocacy group for small-scale farmers—veggie burgers and other soy-based products, including many nutrition bars, are made with a compound that’s known to be harmful to both you and the planet.
Hexane, a by-product of gasoline refining, is used to separate whole soybeans into soy oil, protein and fiber. (It’s also used to extract many cooking oils from plants.) Because hexane contributes to excess ozone, the Environmental Protection Agency lists it as a hazardous air pollutant. According to the EPA, grain processors—including soy processors—are responsible for more than two-thirds of all hexane emissions in the U.S., releasing 21 million pounds of the pollutant.
It’s generally assumed that hexane evaporates and therefore doesn’t appear in the food supply, but when Cornucopia had soy ingredients tested, small amounts of hexane were present (21 parts per million in soy meal and 14 ppm in soy grits). When workers are exposed to hexane at much higher levels (800 to 5,000 ppm) for merely minutes, it can irritate eyes and the upper respiratory tract and cause vertigo and headaches. Because the health implications of ingesting hexane through food are still unknown, Cornucopia has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to investigate.
Bottom line: If you’re concerned about hexane, look for veggie burgers (or nutrition bars) with packaging that sports the USDA’s “organic” seal. Organic processors aren’t allowed to use hexane during manufacturing. You probably don’t need to worry when picking tofu and soymilk because the soy protein in those products doesn’t need to be isolated from the soy oil and fiber.