What’s in that energy bar?
Study finds that some soy-based snack foods contain residual hexane, a toxic byproduct of the petroleum industry
Next time you reach for an energy bar, such as a Clif Bar, pay attention to the insignia in the wrapper’s upper-right-hand corner: “Made with organic oats & soybeans.” This may seem a rather innocuous claim, but a recent study by a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable and organic agriculture says that “organic” products often aren’t as organic as they seem.
Specifically, the use of hexane in soy processing threatens the organic cred of many popular energy bars, veggie burgers and soy-based products.
Researcher Charlotte Vallaeys of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute explained that companies such as Northern California’s Clif Bar & Co. obscure use of the soy-processing chemical hexane, which is prohibited in organic foods and has been classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the Food and Drug Administration makes a distinction between foods labeled organic and those such as Clif Bar that label themselves as made with organic ingredients, Vallaeys said most consumers are unaware of the difference—especially as it pertains to hexane.
“It’s very misleading to consumers who are looking for organic ingredients,” she said.
The distinction is particularly important in Clif Bar’s case, she argued, because the majority of the soy protein in Clif Bars comes from hexane-extracted soy protein isolate —which is listed on the nutrition label as the second-most prevalent ingredient, behind organic brown rice syrup—while the organic soybeans touted on the front are used in a smaller quantity.
To produce soy protein isolate, manufacturers immerse whole soybeans in a bath of the synthetic, petroleum-based solvent. A byproduct of gasoline processing, hexane provides a cheap and efficient way of separating oil from protein in soybeans, and is used in making most nonorganic soy oil and soy protein ingredients.
But this efficiency comes with a price: Hexane is a volatile compound that can react with other air pollutants to create ground-level ozone, poses both short-term and longer-term occupational health hazards to those in close contact with it and may present risks to consumers who are potentially exposed to residues in foods.
In addition to the original Clif Bar and Clif’s Mojo and Luna Bar, other products to receive unsatisfactory ratings from the institute included the Balance Bar, Odwalla Protein Bar, Power Bar, Whole Foods’ Super Greens Bar and 10 others.
Products found to be free of hexane-extracted soy protein included BumbleBar, Lärabar, SoyJoy, Nature’s Path Optimum Energy Bar and 12 others.
Clif Bar doesn’t deny its use of hexane-extracted soy protein, but does contend that hexane residues are absent from its products. “Our suppliers have confirmed that there is no detectable hexane in the soy protein isolate that we use in our bars,” spokeswoman Renée Davidson said via e-mail.
However, the Cornucopia Institute’s testing confirmed that hexane residues were indeed found in raw ingredients obtained for the study. Clif Bar also contends that the FDA approves the use of hexane in processing soy—which is true. Many organic-food proponents have called for the FDA to take a stronger stance on hexane by setting a maximum residue level and requiring manufacturers to test for residues.
According to a prepared statement, Clif Bar says it is “working hard to find an organic alternative to soy protein isolate.” But they haven’t found one yet. The leading alternative at this time is separation by mechanical press, which is less efficient and more costly than the chemical treatment.
In the meantime, concerned consumers should pay close attention to organic labeling: “They really can trust the organic label, especially the ‘USDA Organic’ seal on products. It really does have meaning. This is just one example of the huge difference between so-called ‘natural’ products and a USDA-certified organic product,” Vallaeys said.
“Our position here at Chico Natural Foods co-op is that we do not support the use of toxic chemicals in our food system,” said CNF grocery manager Ron Toppi. “Food companies using soy protein isolate processed from hexane are supporting the use of toxic chemicals in our food system.”
Toppi said that Chico Natural Foods “is currently taking steps to discontinue products with this ingredient, and replace them with products from companies that understand food security is a high priority.” Toppi recently removed all Clif Bar products, which include Luna, Clif Builder and Clif Crunch bars, as well as Kind Plus snack bars, from the shelves of Chico Natural Foods.
“People need to trust that the food they are eating is good for them,” said Toppi. “We deserve that. Our member/owners here at the co-op entrust us with that kind of integrity, so we in turn expect that same level of integrity from food companies.”
Toppi said he recently spoke with a Clif Bar representative, and “their claim is that all soy protein isolate is frequently tested for hexane residual and any containing hexane is rejected. However, residual amounts have been found in random testing. I asked ‘Why is Clif Bar supporting the use of toxic chemicals in our food system?’ I received no real answer, other than, ‘I would have to get back to you on that.’”