Neurotoxin in Veggie Burgers, Infant Formula? Yes and No.

i-26c650b10f759fc98f2d797eeb054ac6-baby_formula.jpegYesterday Kiera Butler, associate editor at Mother Jones, posted an article claiming that soy-based veggie burgers and infant formula are "made with the chemical hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin." She based her conclusions on a report put out by The Cornucopia Institute, an organization committed to "ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture."

If you've heard about hexane before, it was likely in the context of gasoline--the air pollutant is also a byproduct of gas refining. But in 2007, grain processors were responsible for two-thirds of our national hexane emissions. Hexane is hazardous in the factory, too: Workers who have been exposed to it have developed both skin and nervous system disorders. Troubling, then, that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in foods. More worrisome still: According to the report, "Nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted."

I've used hexane before (technically known as n-hexane) in various laboratories I've worked in as a powerful cleaning agent. It's highly toxic and the Department of Health and Human Services states that "Inhaling n-hexane causes nerve damage and paralysis of the arms and legs." Most of my life I've been largely unconcerned about what I eat (we're all going to get cancer one way or another), but since I've become a new parent I try to be conscious of what I'm feeding my baby. So this report naturally caught my eye. But is it true?

The EPA Federal Register from 2001 (pdf here) identifies industrial use of the chemical in vegetable oil extraction with "major sources" of hazardous air pollution (it's also considered a concern for workers exposed to the chemical). Those who choose to be vegetarian often do so for environmental reasons, so for this fact alone it would seem that organic products (that by definition don't use hexane) would be more consistent with their worldview.

The Cornucopia Institute report, entitled "Behind the Bean," states that their research:

exposes a "dirty little secret" in the natural foods business--the widespread use of a toxic and environmentally damaging chemical, hexane, in the manufacturing of "natural" soyfoods such as vegetarian burgers, nutrition bars, and protein shakes.

They base this conclusion on two pieces of evidence:

  1. "According to EPA reports, small quantities of solvent (up to 0.2 percent by volume of oil) can be present in oil after extraction."
  2. "A Swiss team of scientists tested various oils and found hexane residues in some of the tested oils."

Hexane evaporates rapidly in air, but it is possible that some could be retained in the extracted oil. However, in looking up each of these sources I found the first to be correct and the second to be exaggerated. The EPA reports (pdf here) that "Small quantities of solvent (up to 0.2 percent by volume of oil) are present in the crude vegetable oil after the solvent is recovered by film evaporators and the distillation stripper." However, the results from the Swiss scientists (pdf here) could only be interpreted as they were in a very loose fashion:

No samples were found to exceed the tolerance value of 1mg/kg for the solvent hexane. The highest concentration was found in a macadamia nut oil, nevertheless, at 0.13mg/kg it was much lower than the tolerance value. No hexane was detected in 88% of the samples. The limit of detection for hexane is about 0.01mg/kg.

The Cornucopia report also claimed that samples of hexane-extracted soy oil, soy meal, and soy grits were sent to an indepentent USDA lab for analysis:

While there was less than 10 ppm hexane residue in the oil, both the soy meal and soy grits contained higher levels of hexane residues. The soy meal contained 21 ppm hexane and the grits contained 14 ppm. These tests raise important questions regarding the presence of hexane residues in everyday foods.

The results of this test were not made available so there's no way to verify the information. However, it is true that the EPA does not monitor consumption of hexane in consumer food products and the process is used, not only for all soy based products, but also for nut, cottonseed, and olive oils. This fact supports the concern stated in their report about infant formula:

We believe that this research is especially important given the fact that most soy-based infant formulas contain ingredients that have been hexane extracted. In fact, nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted. Infants consume much greater quantities of food compared to their body weight than adults, and formula-fed infants consume the same foods day after day, for many months. If hexane residues are present in conventional soy-based infant formula, their effects on infants should be investigated.

With a background in primatology, this is obviously not my primary area of expertise. However, given that it has been shown that trace amounts of hexane remain after the extraction process, and given that the effects on human health are unknown, it would seem that learning more about this and monitoring its presence in our food is an excellent idea. Neurotoxin in our veggie burgers? Hardly. A reason to pay an extra buck for organic infant formula? Probably not a bad idea.


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Maybe it is fortunate then, that soy formula made youngest very constipated. Unfortunately, due to medical issues he was not able to be breastfed.

Though the opportunity this provided him and I to bond so strongly during his infancy was rather wonderful...

As a vegetarian, I find this so disheartening. I didn't choose vegetarianism for environmental reasons so much as for ethical reasons, and soy is a huge source of my protein. I've long known that many of the Big Name Brands (Morningstar, Boca, etc) have a rather unsavory ingredient list. I had just started to get complacent with my eating. Damn.

Sorry to tell you that choosing organic formula may not avoid products that involve hexane in their production. To qualify as organic in the EU, for example, organic products need not actually be 100% organic. 1% or 2% of non-organic ingredients can be OK.

When it comes to baby milks, there's no way to produce organic pre-biotics, so organic formula milks that include pre-biotics have to use ones that are non organic and which are typically produced in processes that make use of hexane.

The amounts of non-organic pre-biotics are so low that the product can still be marketed as organic, just not 100% organic. If you really want to avoid hexane, organic formula that includes pre-biotics won't necessarily help you.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

@Anonymous: Do you have a link for that? I know that any product with the label "contains organic ingredients" only needs to be 70% organic. I thought to get the USDA approved "Organic" label it had to be 100%, but I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if loopholes were placed in the legislation.

Our baby, Sagan, hasn't had any formula. We've breast fed the whole time (well, I didn't). It's the best way to know what you're feeding him and he gets an enhanced immune system to boot.


'Organic' products only have to be 95% organic. Look at answer 10 in this Q&A from Hipp, an organic baby food manufacturer, which explains why they decided to include non-organic LCPs and pre-biotics in their 5% allowance.…

If you or your readers are concerned about Hexane they should ask their baby product manufacturers directly if they use ingredients from Martek or other companies that use Hexane in their production process. One has to balance the risks of hexane residue in food vs. the risks of not getting LCPs or prebiotics.

I don't necessarily trust wikipedia, but their article on organic food ( says that there's a 95% rule in the US as well.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

You're right, I just looked it up. According to the USDA "Organic" products only need to be 95% organic (pdf here).

The regulations define four categories of organic products:
â100% organicâ â Raw or processed agricultural products that contain 100 percent organic ingredients.
âOrganicâ â Agricultural products that contain not less than 95 percent organic ingredients.
âMade with [organic ingredients]â â Multiingredient products that contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
Less than 70 percent organic ingredients â Multiingredient products that contain less than 70 percent organically produced ingredients.

However, it also states, "Do not use nonorganic ingredients in products labeled 'organic' when organic alternatives are available."

So if organically grown soybeans are subjected to the usual oil extraction - a combination of physical cutting into flakes, solvent percolation with hexane, and expeller squishing to get the last of the hexane/oil mix ... are they still organic?

Do the FDA regulations even cover chemicals used transiently in processing? Does the lye for my organic nixtaml have to be certified organic? How about the vinegar for my pickles?

The hexane is separated from the oil, purified, tested, and re-used because food-grade solvents are expensive. Modern plants even use vacuum to recover the vapour from the protein residue.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

Since all soy protein needs to be de-oiled before use, is there any method other than hexane extraction to do so? I'm pretty sure if anyone had come up with a "hexane free" soy bean processing method the alternative literature would be full of products advertised as such.

I use a lot of olive oil in cooking, for health reasons, and have been sure to use only 'extra virgin olive oil' as it is not industrially processed and so is free of solvents. However, the label 'extra virgin' in USA is meaningless, as they are not members of IOOC, and you might have to research more to find pure product. See this;

How does breast-feeding help? I would argue it strongly depends on what you (the mom) eats - if you eat toxin they will probably also end up in your milk....

Actually blah, the mammaries do a rather excellent job of preventing most of what the mother is ingesting from getting into her milk. It isn't perfect by any means, but with minimum care it is very easy to keep it quit clean.

As far as benefits, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests there are statistically significant benefits to breast feeding. Due to naturally produced sedatives, infants who are breast fed tend to sleep better. Enzymes in the milk that do not exist in formula have been shown to support a stronger immune response - babies who are breast fed quite literally tend to get sick less often and don't get as sick as formula fed babies, when they do. And there is some evidence to indicate that people who were breast fed tend to have a lower incidence of allergies. Though the last is not all that well founded.

There are also claims that breast feeding versus formula tends to have a positive impact on intellectual capacity. But aside from the fact that the metrics for intellectual capacity are seriously flawed, what research has been done in this didn't actually produce very impressive results. The intellectual measures were taken at an age that even supporters of IQ as an intellectual metric admit cannot produce reasonably accurate results. And the results that were produced were not statistically significant.

The bottom line is that there is evidence that breast feeding is healthier for the infant, but the differences are not significant enough to say that formula feeding is the end of the world. And this is something that I spent a hell of a lot of time on when my two year old was born and for medical reasons wasn't able to be breast fed.

(DuWayne- that was an excellent breakdown of a complicated subject. :)

This is interesting... there's been so much talk of soy-based formulas being dangerous lately. I'm not sure how much of it is real and how much is just a backlash against the soy craze that happened a few years back. I still believe in the soybean - it's a great little protein powerhouse - but I definitely think parents should be aware of any and all studies concerning soy and their children's food.

However, I do want to add that toxins do indeed go through breastmilk. The consensus in the scientific community seems to be that while the benefits certainly outweigh the risks, there have been a number of scary substances found in human milk in recent years. I think this is also important for parents to know - rather than turning it into a "breastfeeding vs formula feeding" argument, maybe we can all agree that the amount of chemicals in our environment and food supply is frightening and do something about it??