Just Try It, You’ll Like It, It’s Good for You

a bottle of soymilk next to a bowl of peeled soybeans and another bowl of whole edamame pods
Photo by Kjokkenutstyr Net (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The supermarket dairy aisle is increasingly the aisle of alterna-milks… but it all started with soy milk. Nadia Berenstein‘s deep dive into the history of soy milk at Serious Eats explains how soy milk was a hard sell for Americans until the Seventh-Day Adventists — who are vegetarian as a matter of of faith and are responsible for inventing many plant-based meat substitutes — decided to have a go at it.

Adventism’s soy-milk saint is Harry W. Miller, a doctor and medical missionary who spent decades in Japan and China, where he first became interested in soy foods. In 1931, Miller established an Adventist medical center in Shanghai, where cow’s milk was scarce and costly and where, though a handful of commercial soy-milk factories had recently begun operations, soy milk was usually not considered suitable for young children. In a series of feeding experiments, Miller and his medical staff showed that infants raised on soy milk were healthier than those given cow’s milk or Western baby foods; only breastfed babies did better. Cheaper and more nutritious than dairy milk, soy milk, Miller believed, was a perfect food—not just for babies, but for everyone—and he planned to build a soy-milk factory in Shanghai to make it more widely available.

There were just two problems: the flavor, and the farting. As traditionally prepared in China, soy milk often had a bitter taste and a peculiar flavor that soy-industry researchers call “beany.” “Beany” has variously been described as chalky, cardboard-y, or fishy; resembling sweaty feet; or reminiscent of licking a wet popsicle stick—all of which hint at its prismatic unpleasantness, particularly to Western palates.

Miller eventually had a divine revelation and figured out how to de-fart soy milk, but his first try at mass production didn’t go so well.

Miller’s Vetose Soya Milk factory began producing a bland, un-beany soy milk in Shanghai in 1937—a terrible time and place to start a new business. When the Japanese military invaded, Miller and his family fled, and the factory was destroyed in the ensuing fighting.

(Don’t worry! He started over again in Ohio.)

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