History of Soymilk part 1: Guatemala

History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226-2013): Including Infant Formulas, Calf Milk Replacers, Soy Creamers, Soy Shakes, Soy Smoothies, Almond Milk, Coconut Milk, Peanut Milk, Rice Milk, Sesame Milk, etc.

Compiled by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi for the Soyinfo Center and published in late 2013, this 2972-page book is considered “the world’s most comprehensive, well documented, and well illustrated” on the subject.

A new addition to the Paleoveganista research and resources sections, you can download a free digital copy from Google Books.

mayan girl tofuThis book caught my attention today as I sorted through miscellaneous notes that I recently uncovered from underneath boxes of books in my storage unit. Among them, I found notes from interviews and surveys I conducted in Solola, Guatemala in 2012 regarding the local diet and zinc deficiency. In my notes I found mention of “The Soybean Project” which reminded me that in the 1970s (as part of a relief effort made by non-profit organizations and development corporations in the United States and Canada) soybeans were introduced in the Guatemalan highlands to improve nutrition in schools and for families without access to dairy products. TVP (textured vegetable protein) also became an important food. Today, the average person living in industrialized regions of the West will find TVP at corporate grocery stores.

TVP is the prototype for most packaged soy foods and meat alternatives made popular in the 1990s i.e. Hormel vegetarian chili, Boca burgers, and Morningstar Farms “veggie crumblers”. These products once seemed like the only option or alternative to meat, for those transitioning to vegetarianism or quitting cold turkey. The argument I wish to make will require a subsequent article, but—Hormel? The original manufacturer of Spam. Boca? Owned by Kraft. Morningstar Farms? Kellogg. As these products gained popularity in the United States and garnered mainstream attention, their key ingredient (soy, or TVP) had for nearly two decades functioned as a dietary staple for poor Guatemalans.

mayan girl soy ice creamAfter reading sections of History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks, I felt the need to problematize the forceful introduction of soy to the Guatemalan highlands. Granted, most families lacked protein in their diets (as many didn’t have access to meat, or their bean crop didn’t flourish that year). Efforts by first-world “development corporations”, non-profits, and UNICEF resulted in the construction of a soy foods manufacturing plant in Solola—the goal of which was to make government-issued snacks available to children in schools, thereby improving their nutrition, similar to the vitamin-rich Incaparina powdered beverage that was later developed by INCAP (Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama) for a similar purpose.

I advocate soy over milk, and definitely consider it nutritionally superior to the variety sourced from cows pumped with growth hormones and sold in bags in the dry goods sections of most Superama stores and independently-owned tiendas. In 2012, the families I interviewed did not own their own cow. Some ate TVP, but few people could acknowledge the existence of soymilk or had heard of a metate, the device used to prepare and filter soymilk from the soybean crop introduced by UNICEF in the mid 1970s to San Bartolo, a Mayan community on the outskirts of Solola.

The soybean variety integrated into Guatemalan agriculture in 1974 was designed to grow stronger and with more efficiency than other varieties, to ensure its functionality as a means toward improving nutrition. After the 1976 earthquake that killed over 20,000 people, a non-profit organization called Plenty helped the community of San Bartolo to develop a soyaria (soy “dairy”).

Today, you can buy soy products in Solola and often from vendors that solicit bottled beverages through the windows of chicken buses throughout the highlands and toward the Mexican border in Tapachula. At least that’s my experience. I found soya milk or leche de soja more commonly sold in Peru and Colombia at military checkpoints—offered in exchange for $ by child laborers—as an alternative to other “aguas” i.e. soda and the occasional bottle or bag of aqua pura.


In the Atitlan region of Guatemala in the Solola province but more situated along the “gringo trail”,  soy products are plentiful if you know where to look. In Panajachel, look for locally-owned tiendas (grocery stores) that cater to foreigners. One is located on Calle Santander in the heart of the tourist district, another is at the corner of Calle Principal, along the road with the Superama and various tiendas that ends with the first bridge that separates the center of town from Barrio Jucanya, and a third is located a few blocks from Calle Santander, in the grey area that marks the distinction between actual Pana and tourist Pana . A select few coffee shops carry soymilk, as well. In San Pedro (across the lake, best accessed by local transport in a water taxi—where you will pay 5 Q or so more than the locals do), you will find a small but well-stocked natural foods store where you can buy vegan choco-banana and peanut butter cookies, as well as stevia and lots of products I’ve rarely found elsewhere in Central America. I think the owners are ex-pats, or backpackers that wound up in San Pedro and never left. Also in San Pedro, you can find vegan baked goods to your heart’s content, often made from things like spelt, oats, and bananas. Upon my most recent visit to San Pedro about 9 months ago, I observed that the terms “vegano” and “vegana” have caught on. The woman who sells baked goods from baskets on the streets of San Pedro (in the parts of town that yield the most tourists) knew the term and used it to describe her cookies and banana bread.

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