On Slavery, Silk, Carrageenan, Animal Studies and Soymilk Makers

Jeff Nelson | 03/26/02

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For about a year now, Robert Cohen, who has given himself a character name of "Notmilk Man," has been on a one-man jihad to find any pretext he can to attack the tofu/tempeh/soy company White Wave. Cohen has done his best to paint them as a lying, cheating, deceptive outfit, a big bad corporation that puts Monsanto to shame.

One of the latest reasons to shun White Wave is because, according to Cohen, White Wave is somehow endorsing child slavery.

Concerted Smear Campaign

This charge is only the most recent in a long line of failed attempts by Cohen to damage White Wave. We've already responded to some of Cohen's earlier attacks on White Wave with the article, "Does Silk Bilk?" (opens new browser)

At the time I wrote that article (September of 2001) and when I spoke to Cohen before publishing it, he told me he was making it his personal mission to try to "destroy" White Wave. He said the company had not been personally respectful to him. When I pointed out that he had made a number of unfair and untrue statements in his articles on White Wave, he told me he didn't care whether his criticisms of the company were accurate or not, because any attack was justified because they were a "bad company."

At the time Cohen was making these attacks on White Wave, I also spoke with James Terman and Steve Demos, the marketing director and Founder/President of the company, respectively -- and they were bewildered. They were particularly shocked that someone who claimed to be from their own community would attack them so viciously and unfairly. I assured them that Cohen was an anomaly, and that the majority of vegetarians I know do not engage in this type of conduct. They said Cohen had been belligerent and threatening in his communications with White Wave, and that they found him to be completely irrational. (At one point, Cohen was apparently begging White Wave to sue him, asserting that it would be a PR bonanza for Cohen which would make him "bigger than Howard Lyman" -- a reference to the lawsuit against Howard and Oprah by the Texas cattlemen, which was widely covered in the media).

White Wave: "Part of the Child Slavery Problem?"

Since revealing many of Cohen's charges to be baseless in my September 2001 article, Cohen has focused on the issue of child slavery in the production of chocolate in the Ivory Coast, asserting that White Wave is somehow supporting it. John Robbins has written an excellent article on the disturbing and complex topic called "Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate?"

Cohen regularly rants to his audience that they should boycott White Wave,the current reason being because White Wave refuses to put a statement on their website which Cohen dictated. The statement Cohen demands they make is:

"We at SILK will not knowingly purchase our chocolate beans from nations like Ivory Coast in which kidnapped children are living in slavery."

Since chocolate sold throughout the world is usually blended together from many different sources, it's very difficult to make a statement like this -- unless a company simply plans to buy no chocolate ever again. I interpret Cohen's demand to White Wave as his basically telling them to get out of the chocolate soymilk business, or face Cohen's wrath.

Moreover, such a stance is not supported by the Ivory Coast anti-slavery NGOs, who are looking to solve the problem without harming the thousands of Ivory Coast family farms which use no such slave labor.

Why Attack White Wave?

In reality, White Wave is a tiny, tiny producer of chocolate products. Their chocolate soymilk is the only one of some 48 products they produce which uses chocolate. They are a very very small player in the chocolate world. So you have to wonder why Cohen has decided to go after them repeatedly and in his sloppy, simplistic, hysterical, shoot-from-the-hip style on the chocolate issue -- when there are so many other companies out there using much much more chocolate that Cohen doesn't seem to care enough about to pay much attention.

What about Safeway? What about Whole Foods? What about Clif Bar? What about Imagine Foods? Why isn't Cohen going after and writing columns about them, or Nestle, or Hershey, or Mars, or Kraft Foods? They all buy and sell chocolate in orders of magnitude many many times higher than White Wave. Why isn't he going after the big cocoa suppliers, like Cargill and ADM? Why isn't he asking his readers to write their congressional representative, or the ambassador from the Ivory Coast? Why has Cohen, who is so stridently anti-dairy, decided to use this as another pretext to attack a tofu/tempeh/soy milk company?

Though in the larger scheme of things White Wave is a very small user of chocolate, the company has responded to learning about the child slavery problem by committing to a proactive approach. They joined the World Cocoa Foundation (normally open only to chocolate manufacturers) at a level high enough to allow White Wave participation in their bi-annual board meetings. Though a tiny company by comparison to the other members, White Wave sent a representative to the Foundation's board meeting this month.

For anyone who knows White Wave's history, their approach has always been to work toward solutions in areas where they can have influence -- organic practices, non-GMO issues, and vegetarianism. Consistent with that, I expect that as they learn more about this Ivory Coast situation they will do everything they can to effect change.

To date, the Child Labor Protocol which has been adopted to combat child slavery issues -- and which Cohen pooh-poohs -- has been received enthusiastically by child welfare and antislavery advocates who are far more knowledgeable about this complex topic than Cohen. These are people who are trying to help the victimized children, not merely selling a soymilk maker. For example, Kevin Bales, the Executive Director of Free The Slaves, a nonprofit advocacy group on the chocolate/slavery issue, said this:

This protocol is a breakthrough in the global fight against slavery. The partnership between industry, governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders is unique and will stand as a model for other products and countries. If other industries acted with such social and moral responsibility, we would be much nearer to freedom for the 27 million in bondage worldwide.

For more examples of how many familiar with this issue view the protocol, see:

If you're interested to see how the slavery/chocolate issue is being dealt with generally by the industry, here are two websites for further background:

Selling Soymilk Makers

These days the "Notmilk Man" seems to be very concerned with hawking his soymilk machine (except when he's harassing well respected vegetarian activists -- despite requests from such activists not to use their copyrighted photo on Cohen's website, which Cohen has no problem taking and then refusing to remove). And Cohen's chosen manner to promote his soymilk machine appears to be bashing what he sees as the "competition."

White Wave apparently fits that category as far as Cohen is concerned -- though personally I think it's slightly hallucinatory for Cohen to think that he's remotely competitive with them.

Cohen is also trying to promote his soymilk maker machine by going after another soymilk maker, the Soyajoy. Cohen used to sell the Soyajoy Soymilk Maker quite successfully from his notmilk website. He hyped the machine and sang its praises -- one such article can still be found on Cohen's website. (Update: After this article appeared, Cohen removed the article and replaced it with nonsense promoting his soymilk machine. Here is a copy of the original article: Cohen Article)

According to Sanlinx Inc, the owners of the Soyajoy Soymilk Maker, when Cohen was selling the Soyajoy he attempted to convince them to lower the price he could pay Sanlinx for their machines by 50%. When they could not give him such a discount, Cohen found another soymilk maker to sell, and suddenly changed his tune on the Soyajoy and began bashing it.

On his new soymilk selling site, Cohen has a page in which he compares his new soymilk maker with the Soyajoy. In his comparison he now calls the high quality stainless steel used in SoyaJoy as inexpensive "rolled steel," and makes other disparaging comments. James Wang, the very nice owner of Sanlinx which produces the Soyajoy, is hurt that Cohen has turned on them and is, according to Wang, now making false statements about the Soyajoy.

Carrageenan: More Evidence it's Personal

If there were any question whether Cohen is simply on his personal mission to try to smear Silk, there can be little doubt today. Cohen's notmilk yahoogroups column today is about an article by Andrew Weil, MD, in which Weil points to animal studies and raises questions about the safety of carrageenan -- a food thickener derived from red seaweed. While carrageenan may be used in pudding, ice cream, yogurt, soups or cottage cheese, you wouldn't know that from reading Cohen's blast, entitled "SILK -- The Deadly Poison." That's most likely because as usual Cohen sees the world as a struggle between peddling his soymilk maker and sales of Silk, and grasps at whatever he can to try to discredit Silk. Out of the thousands of vegan products which contain carrageenam, Cohen focuses only on one product and one company in his rant -- White Wave.

In this, his current pathetic attempt to go after Silk, Cohen glorifies an animal researcher, a woman who earns money from the death of animals. Cohen, who very recently publicly proclaimed proudly his complete abhorrence at even mentioning animal studies, spends his entire column today promoting the work of Joanne Tobacman, M.D., University of Iowa assistant professor of clinical internal medicine. Cohen cites no studies pointing to carrageenan as hazardous for humans, instead presenting a love letter to Dr. Tobacman and her work -- which is based on vivisection.

You can read more about Dr. Tobacman's work here: This is not a new topic; Dr. Tobacman has been looking at the effect of carrageenan on various animals for years. You can also read her full study which details the hundreds of animals tested: Tobacman study (requires free Adobe Acrobat pdf reader)

For those who want to weigh Tobacman's data against reports from other bodies which have looked into it, here are some additional materials which detail various researchers' position on carrageenan:

I present these documents not because I have any interest in entering the debate about which animal study, if any, is most persuasive, or whether the levels of carrageenan fed to rats and monkeys in some way models how humans consume the substance, etc. I have no interest in that discussion, and in fact believe it's appalling that anyone is doing experiments like this.

I only present Dr. Tobacman's work and the work of others to show how Robert Cohen will use experiments on hundreds of rats, gineau pigs, mice, hamsters, rhesus monkeys, pigs, squirrels, rabbits, squirrel monkeys and other animals -- the work of Dr. Tobacman on carrageenan -- as a scare tactic to try to sell his soymilk maker.

"It's Not About Animal Studies!" Cohen Cries

Of course, in his piece today Cohen refers to evidence other than animal studies and claims to discount the animal studies. Let's look at whether this claim stands up. Cohen writes:

"I learned from Dr. Tobacman that carrageenan is highly sulferated. Forty percent of carrageenan, by molecular weight, is sulfur. You may recall from previous notmilk columns that amino acids containing sulfur create an acid condition in the bloodstream, and that the human body neutralizes the acid by leeching calcium from bones. Methionine is one such amino, and methionine converts to homocysteine, an amino acid that Dr. William Castelli calls a key to heart disease. Castelli is the lead researcher in the Framingham heart study, the largest heart study in the history of mankind.

"Critics of soymilk (containing carrageenan) might be onto something. There is a definite cancer risk.

"Dr. Tobacman explained to me that mammary epithelial cells are absent in invasive mammary cancers. Her critically important work reveals that carrageenan destroys these healthy breast cells in culture. She suggests that carrageenan plays a role in breast cancer."

In terms of culture studies that Cohen promotes, the evidence is contradictory and does not on balance support a carcinogenic effect:

Carrageenan-induced inclusions in mammary myoepithelial cells
Tobacman JK, Walters KS
25 (6): 520-526 2001

The purpose of this investigation was to characterize the ultrastructural changes that occur in mammary myoepithelial cells (MMEC) following exposure in tissue culture to low concentrations of lambda -carrageenan, a sulfated polysaccharide commonly used as a food additive. MMEC were obtained from reduction mammoplast, grown in tissue culture, exposed for varying durations to low concentrations (0.0014%-0.0001%) of X-carrageenan, and examined by transmission electron microscopy, following staining for acid phosphatase and for aryl sulfatase. Carrageenan appeared to enter the cells by membrane-associated endocytic vesicles and accumulate in endosomes and lysosomes. Unusual lamellar inclusions were identified within lysosomes of the MMEC, and lysosomal vacuolation arose in association with the inclusions. The observed changes appeared to lead to destruction of the MMEC by release of proteolytic enzymes from the distorted lysosomes, similar to the process observed in lysosomal storage diseases.

This is at best indirect evidence of an adverse effect of carrageenan, no direct evidence however.

Analysis of the in vitro inhibition of mammary adenocarcinoma cell adhesion by sulphated polysaccharides
Liu JM, Haroun-Bouhedja F, Boisson-Vidal C
20 (5A): 3265-3271 SEP-OCT 2000

Evidence is mounting that changes in the ability of cancer cells to adhere to extracellular matrices (ECM) play a decisive role in metastasis spread. We have investigated the effect of different sulphated polysaccharides on the adhesion of MCF7 and MDA-MB231 adenocarcinoma breast cells to different substrata: a reconstituted basement membrane (Matrigel) and various adhesion-mediating proteins (fibronectin, laminin, type IV collagen). Most of them inhibited cell adhesion and the most active component is a galactose rich units polysaccharide, carrageenan iota. Taken together, the results suggest that this inhibitory activity depends on the charge density related to sulphate groups, the molecular weight and also the carbohydrate structure. These products very likely unstabilize the interaction between the glucosaminoglycan portion of proteoglycans and the ECM proteins and then block the ability of these adhesive proteins to bind to cells.

But wait -- the above is indirect evidence of a beneficial effect!

36 (4): 325-334 AUG 1995

iota-Carrageenan is a polysulphated carbohydrate that antagonises some heparin-binding growth factors. We assessed the effect of iota-carrageenan on the proliferation of a panel of cell lines, some of which require heparin-binding growth factors for mitogenesis. The importance of growth factor antagonism for the antiproliferative activity was also determined. Cell proliferation was determined by cell counts and a tetrazolium dye (MTT) assay, and DNA synthesis was determined by thymidine incorporation. The proliferation of the basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF)-dependent endothelial cell line FBHE was inhibited by daily administration of iota-carrageenan in a dose-dependent manner [concentration inhibiting cell growth by 50% (IC50 value), approx. 0.5 mu g/ml]. However, excess bFGF did not reverse the inhibitory effect. DNA synthesis was completely inhibited by concentrations of l-carrageenan that nonetheless allowed significant protein synthesis to occur. The proliferation of the androgen-dependent prostate-carcinoma cell line LNCaP was also inhibited by iota-carrageenan (IC50 value, 5.5 mu g/ml) and the cells were arrested at the G1/S boundary. iota-Carrageenan inhibited DNA synthesis in MCF-7 cells stimulated by bFGF and transforming growth factor alpha (TGF alpha) but not in those stimulated by insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Blocking IGF-1-mediated DNA synthesis with anti-IGF-1 receptor antibody alpha IR3 enhanced the inhibitory activity of iota-carrageenan against MCF-7 cells grown in serum. A number of other transformed and non-transformed cell lines were either partially inhibited or not inhibited by iota-carrageenan. iota-Carrageenan had low anti-coagulant activity. iota-Carrageenan is a selective anti-proliferative agent and warrants further investigation for anti-angiogenic therapy (in view of its activity against endothelial cells) and for the treatment of androgen-dependent prostate cancer.

More indirect evidence of a beneficial effect.

Consumption of carrageenan and other water-soluble polymers used as food additives and incidence of mammary carcinoma
Tobacman JK, Wallace RB, Zimmerman MB
56 (5): 589-598 MAY 2001

This study examined the hypothesis that the increasing incidence of mammary carcinoma in the USA in the twentieth century may be related to the consumption of carrageenan and possibly other water-soluble polymers. Widely used as food additives in the Western diet, the water-soluble polymers, also known as gums, are generally regarded as inert. However, the gum carrageenan which is comprised of linked, sulfated galactose residues has potent biological activity and undergoes acid hydrolysis to poligeenan, an acknowledged carcinogen. A time-trend analysis using age-adjusted incidence data and consumption data from established sources tested the hypothesis that increased consumption of the gums may be associated with increased incidence of mammary carcinoma. Correlations were determined using Pearson and Spearman correlation coefficients, incorporating lag intervals of 10 to 35 years. This analysis demonstrated that increasing consumption of several gums correlates positively with increased incidence of breast carcinoma.

The above study by Dr. Tobacman is a meaningless correlation study: breast cancer also correlates with the increase of BMWs in a given country or the number of television sets or the amount of a given food in our diets; anything increasing in developed countries would show similar correlations with breast cancer as the study above.

The argument Cohen advances that carageenan contains sulphur and that sulphur containing amino acids are associated with calcium loss and (modestly) with increased homocysteine is utterly irrelevant -- because carrageenan is a carbohydrate not a protein: it contains no amino acids. The breathtaking irrelevance of Cohen's argument shows a man struggling for any excuse to use an argument based on animal experimentation.

It is clear (from the links provided above) that Joanne Tobacman's view of carrageenan is universally rejected in scientific reviews of this topic.

As far as digestion to galactose goes, carrageenan is a mucilage which is a form of non-starch polysaccharide, i.e. it is indigestible fibre until fermented in the colon, so this is not an issue. Unsurprisingly, the animal experiments refer to gut cancer not breast or prostate cancer: the relevance of culture studies on breast and prostate cancer is to drug treatment not nutrition.

As carrageenan is a non-digestible polysaccharide, Cohen's fear-mongering about increased homocysteine levels and calcium loss is total nonsense.

Only methionine (and not other sulphur containing amino acids) increases homocysteine measurably at normal dietary intakes and its effect is about 5th in order of importance after folate, B12, B6 and coffee. Carrageenan is completely irrelevant to homocysteine.

Cysteine and methionine both increase calcium loss as both are absorbed and metabolised to produce sulphuric acid: carrageenan is not absorbed and metabolised in this way.

In short, the culture evidence Cohen points to does not support an adverse effect of carrageenan. There is no meaningful human epidemiological evidence and the theoretical argument made by Cohen is nonsense (as usual). What we're left with are animal studies: the true foundation of Tobacman's position and an inappropriate basis for recommendations for human health. Cohen's attempt to distance himself from the true basis of Tobacman's suspicion of carrageenan while citing her as an authority is pathetic.

Cohen evidently didn't realize when he tried to rip at carrageenan that it contains galactose -- oops! As discussed on IVU-SCI (a mailing list where actual scientific discussions relating to vegetarianism take place, and one where Cohen's "science" would likely be laughed off the list), there is only weak evidence for an effect of galactose on ovarian cancer and no evidence related to other cancers, so even if carrageenan were degraded to galactose there is no reason for concern about carrageenan.

For another take on the carrageenan issue, here's how Dr. Tobacman's work was written up:

This article states that:

Virtually all the bad news [about carrageenan] comes from rat studies, and one experiment suggests the bacteria that live in the rat intestine may contribute to the effects while bacteria from humans do not result in the same problems.

Note that the tone of all the articles I've linked is not the screeching hysteria of a Cohen bash on Silk (asserting that Silk is "a deadly poison!!"), but are far more balanced. By the way, a "deadly poison" is something which, when you drink it, you die. An example would be arsenic. Calling Silk "a deadly poison," as Cohen does, is merely another fabrication.

Cohen Shows His True Colors

It seems completely lacking in conscience for Cohen to be throwing mud, as he so regularly does. A few weeks ago Cohen launched a vicious attack on John Robbins on his yahoogroup, asserting Robbins "promoted vivisection" because Robbins alluded in his book "Food Revolution" to one study of GMO potatoes where the government fired the researcher whose animal study showed GMO potatoes were potentially harmful. Robbins disavowed the study when he mentioned it.

Today Cohen is actively promoting studies on hundreds or perhaps thousands of animals, in his latest desperate attempt to attack Silk. In order to try to suggest that Silk causes cancer, Cohen ends his piece today quoting Dr. Weil's reaction to the animal studies, citing these animal studies as a reason to avoid Silk. What does that make Cohen? At a minimum, it makes him a hypocrite.

Personally, I believe it's poor salesmanship to try to promote yourself or sell your own product by attacking and smearing someone else, whether you're smearing Soyajoy or White Wave or beloved vegetarian leaders.

And when it comes to smearing White Wave, I have to say it really disgusts me, especially when I know that the people at that company have such high ethical standards personally and professionally. Steve Demos, vegetarian and founder of White Wave, "got" the message many years ago, long before Cohen or most of us. He put his "activism" into something practical -- a big vegetarian company, which is now one of the biggest, most successful vegan companies, one which has played a major role in getting soy products into the consciousness of nation.

We all have to make a living, and in the best of all possible worlds we get to do it by offering a product or service that is consistent with our social values. I have no problem with someone enthusiastically promoting his product. I just feel it's wrong -- and unnecessarily divisive -- to do it with bashing, nonsense and innuendo directed against a couple of companies that have served the veg community well.

And for the record lest anyone think we're trying to sell something ourselves, I want to say that neither VegSource nor Sabrina or me personally receive or have ever received any advertising income or any other consideration from White Wave. We like and respect this company and the people who run it, which is our complete motivation for standing up for them.


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