Suspicious seaweed source of serious serial soya sickness saga

Soy products are in the news due to an impending class action suit against a soy milk substitute distributer, but the culprit is seaweed. Kelp and its extracts can contain toxic amounts of iodine that can affect the thyroid.

Thankfully Greenpeace is not issuing demands for the banning of all seaweeds in food. Hopefully the case might highlight the idea that a balanced overall diet is more important for human health than any particular so called “healthy food”.

Soy product robbed me of joys of motherhood: lawsuit figure
Daniella Miletic
October 1, 2010 The Age, Melbourne

Bonsoy milks the life out of a mother

Erin Downie and 24 other plaintiffs lodge a class action against the distributors of Bonsoy for the product’s toxically high levels of iodine.

ERIN Downie drank Bonsoy when she became pregnant because she was told it was the best soy milk on the market. When she had trouble breastfeeding, she drank more. She put it in her porridge, in her smoothies, in her cups of tea. She never imagined the soy milk would allegedly lead her to be admitted to hospital twice, and leave her so weak that she couldn’t shower herself or pick up her baby, Mirakye, after she was born. 

Crying, Ms Downie yesterday spoke of how her dream of being an active, engaged mother was taken away after her daughter, now two, was born. Ms Downie became sick from toxic levels of iodine – levels she alleges were the result of the copious amounts of Bonsoy she consumed…

 …Bonsoy tested positive for elevated iodine levels, thought to result from a seaweed-derived ingredient called kombu, believed to have been added to Bonsoy by makers in Japan since 2003.

See also
Soy drinkers launch multi-million-dollar class action
ABC Australia Updated Thu Sep 30, 2010 6:35pm AEST

The milk was recalled worldwide shortly before Christmas 2009, but a new version with lower iodine levels has since been returned to sale. (ABC News) The Victorian-based distributor of soy milk brand, Bonsoy, is being sued in a multi-million-dollar class action launched in Melbourne today. The milk was recalled worldwide shortly before Christmas 2009, after a number of people developed thyroid problems related to high levels of iodine. Lawyer Bernard Murphy, of Maurice Blackburn, says the distributor Spiral Foods added a seaweed extract to the milk from 2003 until its recall, raising its iodine count to seven times the safe level. “In that period, scores of people suffered serious health consequences as a result of their consumption of Bonsoy milk,” he said. “Our clients are health conscious people. They drank this milk to improve their health but instead they became sick, some of them critically ill.” The firm maintains there is strong medical evidence that excess iodine consumption causes thyroid conditions which can lead to severe chronic and acute illness. Mr Murphy says at least 25 people have already joined the class action and he expects there will be hundreds more. (more at link)

The science literature says this, and much more about the health effects of iodine in seaweeds:

Variability of iodine content in common commercially available edible seaweeds.
Teas J, Pino S, Critchley A, Braverman LE.


Dietary seaweeds, common in Asia and in Asian restaurants, have become established as part of popular international cuisine. To understand the possibility for iodine-induced thyroid dysfunction better, we collected samples of the most common dietary seaweeds available from commercial sources in the United States, as well as harvester-provided samples from Canada, Tasmania, and Namibia. Altogether, 12 different species of seaweeds were analyzed for iodine content, and found to range from 16 microg/g (+/-2) in nori (Porphyra tenera) to over 8165 +/- 373 microg/g in one sample of processed kelp granules (a salt substitute) made from Laminaria digitata. We explored variation in preharvest conditions in a small study of two Namibian kelps (Laminaria pallida and Ecklonia maxima), and found that iodine content was lowest in sun-bleached blades (514 +/- 42 microg/g), and highest amount in freshly cut juvenile blades (6571 +/- 715 microg/g). Iodine is water-soluble in cooking and may vaporize in humid storage conditions, making average iodine content of prepared foods difficult to estimate. It is possible some Asian seaweed dishes may exceed the tolerable upper iodine intake level of 1100 microg/d..Thyroid. 2004 Oct;14(10):836-41.

Department of Health Promotion Education and Behavior, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Cancer Center, Columbia, South Carolina, USA.


  1. I was raised with the Chinese received wisdom that soy and mung beans are to be avoided by women who are expecting children. Seaweed is okay but shouldn’t be mixed with certain ingredients.  The same goes for soy and mung beans.  The Japanese did not adapt these traditions along when they claimed these Chinese original usages for their own.   Might explain their low birth rate.

  2. LOL – Bonsoy is organic. So much for the ‘organic therefore healthy’ mantra.
    Interestingly, iodine was once a drug of abuse, back in the 1920’s – 1940’s. In large amounts, it produces a ‘high’ similar to amphetamines and can lead to dependence (and hospitalization for thyrotoxicosis).
    So we have to wonder if these people were abusing Bonsoy.

    “Thankfully Greenpeace is not issuing demands for the banning of all seaweeds in food”? Seaweed is not GM… and I guess there is no ugly multinational trading it.
    “Our clients are health conscious people”? If they really were, they would know that soybeans are not without risk. The French food safety authority recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children below 3, to avoid soy.

  4. Do you have any citations to share regarding soy causing harmful effects to young children? I’ve heard this claim before, but haven’t seen anything strong to back it up. The studies I’ve found on PubMed have been speculative regarding children, while studies on adults show almost exclusively that show soy to have an overall health benefit. Still, I can imagine that consuming exclusively one food might be a bad idea for a variety of reasons. I wonder if there’s been any research on rotating formulas, of course breast milk is best, but if that’s not possible then what about rotating rice, soy, and cow milk based formulas? Or mixing them, perhaps. That way, any potential negative effect resulting from exclusive feeding of one would be negated.

    One study I did find showed that breast milk didn’t contain isoflavones no matter how much soy the mother consumed – so the French Food Safety Authority’s recommendation may need an update. The same study found a huge range in isofavones in soy formula, which leaves me curious about how the soy was processed. Is there a way to reduce the isoflavones in soy products?

    I’m also extremely interested in what is the amount of estrogen or estrogen-like compounds in milk and meat compared to isoflavones in soy products and how much that is compared to the amount of estrogens produced by the human body at various life stages – and what is the relative activity of all 3 hormone sources. From what I’ve read, there are more isoflavones in soy than there are hormones in pasteurized dairy products, but I’d be very surprised if bovine hormones weren’t more bioactive in humans than soy hormones. Finally, all of these estrogens and isovflavones are consumed orally, and I’m wondering what is the rate of digestion (breaking down) vs how much is absorbed into the human body in tact. Obviously, some hormones can be absorbed (that’s how oral birth control works) but do isoflavones have the same rate of absorption? This is undoubtedly a very complex subject!

  5. Andre,
    If Greenpeace were consistent in its evaluation of GMOs and food, Bonsoy would be GMOs. There’s probably mixture of gene fragments from seaweed and soy, and most certainly, ‘unknown’ proteins, etc. expressed by ‘unknown’ genes in the two ‘unrelated species’. Frankenkelpbean, anyone?

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