Adventist Influence Today

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California


In 1981 there were approximately 525,000 Seventh-day Adventists in the United States and 3,750,000 worldwide. The number was steadily growing, especially abroad. Historically, Adventists have been on the forefront of health reform in general and soyfood innovation in particular. Their influence is still important but, we feel as non-Adventists who have been deeply inspired by the original message, full of unrealized potential.

The influence of the Seventh-day Adventist diet (which calls for abstention from meat, tobacco, and alcohol) and lifestyle on health and longevity has been well documented in a number of careful scientific studies on large groups. The actual diet consumed by the average Adventist contains roughly 25% less fat and 50% more fiber than that of the general population. About half of all Adventists (some say only one quarter) consume no meat; the remainder generally use less than the general population. A 1958-65 study conducted by Loma Linda University on 50,000 California Adventists showed that, compared with all California residents, they had significantly lower rates of death from coronary heart disease (only 55% as much as the average Californian), stroke (53%), diabetes (55%), digestive tract cancer (65%) and all causes of death (59%). At age 35, Adventist men were expected to live 6 years longer and women 3 years longer than the average Californian. Adventist men who ate meat had 64% the average rate of coronary heart disease (America's number one killer), while lacto-ovo vegetarians had only 40% the average rate and total vegetarians (who ate no animal products) had only 12-23% the average rate, showing clearly and dramatically the healthful effects of a meatless diet. In summarizing these findings and their significance, Scharffenberg (1979) states, "The causes of death are not heart disease and cancer, but smoking, drinking, and meat eating."

It is interesting to note that the average age of the main soyfoods pioneers in this chapter is 88.5 years, compared with 74 years in 1981 for the typical American (69.3 years for males; 77.1 for females). Ellen White lived to age 87, J.H. Kellogg to 91, Harry Miller to 97, E.A. Sutherland to 90, Perry Webber to 82, and Jethro Kloss to 84.

Ever since Ellen G. White's health reform message of 1863, Seventh-day Adventists have had a "theology" of nutrition and healthful living. Throughout much of the late 1800s and early 1900s they were on the leading edge of health and diet reform in America. Their message is every bit as relevant today as it was a century ago. Statistics show the validity of their approach and their researchers and doctors continue to publish excellent studies on vegetarian diets. Thus it is a great shame that at a period in American history when the general interest in health reform, good nutrition, and meatless diets is at an unusual, perhaps all-time high, the Adventists voice is rarely heard and its influence is at perhaps an all-time low.

Adventists have the message, full of power and relevance, but who are its spokespeople? Who is here to present it with the vitality and conviction that it once was presented by Ellen White, Dr. J.H. Kellogg, Dr. Harry Miller, Dr. David Paulson, and Dr. E. A. Sutherland? The vision seems to have faded, or at least to have become institutionalized, printed in booklets and magazines read by fellow Adventists and sold only at their bookstores. Moreover the most important and widely read books on vegetarian diets, cooking, and good health, written by non-Adventist authors, are only rarely carried at Adventist bookstores. Increasingly, it seems to us, as the church has become ingrown, speaking to itself and to the converted, its message has become bland and even bourgeoise, in part from lack of dialogue with the growing numbers of people who wish to speak the same message, and with the American people as a whole.

The influence of Adventist foods, and particularly soyfoods, though small is growing. The Worthington Morningstar Farms line and Loma Linda's Soyalac have both reached a sizeable portion of the US population. Worldwide sales of health foods by church-owned Adventist companies have grown rapidly, climbing from $51 million in 1970 to $96 million in 1974 and $188 million in 1979. The work to bring good foods to undernourished Third World countries is expanding and deserves praise and encouragement. In the US, starting in the late 1970s, Adventist meat analogs and soymilk came to be rather heavily promoted with full-page color ads in leading magazines aimed at the non-Adventist market sectors interested in alternative/natural lifestyles, good health, and vegetarian diets. Yet in America many Adventist soyfoods have a rather poor image (if any) among that rapidly growing sector of the population that wants foods which are both vegetarian and natural. The artificial flavorings and colorings (and formerly the MSG) in many of the meat analogs greatly reduces their appeal. At the annual Soyfoods Association Conferences, for example, where soyfoods are served at each meal for 4 days, Adventist products have never even been considered for inclusion on the menu, largely because most products are highly processed and contain artificial additives. Moreover the Adventist soyfoods manufacturers have had almost no involvement with the rapidly growing soyfoods industry, their potentially close allies. Adventist food companies have slowly drifted into an ever deeper involvement with their present meat analogs. Yet one can only wonder how these foods and their ingredients would be viewed by the founders of the Adventist food message, such as Ellen G. White or Dr. J.H. Kellogg. With their emphasis on "simple, inexpensive, wholesome foods," we suspect they would be more drawn to traditional, low-technology soyfoods such as tofu and soymilk than to today's Meatless Roast Beef, Swiss Steak with Gravy, or Sizzle Franks.

Another problem related to influence concerns the emphasis the church is willing to expend on expansion of their food operations, and the way the effectiveness of these should be judged. Ellen White's teachings are relevant here: "We are not to bend our energies to the establishment of food stores and food factories merely to supply people with temporal food and make money . . . Better results will be seen if we devote our energies largely to the work of educating the people on how to prepare simple, healthful foods in their own homes, instead of spending our entire time in the manufacture and sale of foods which involve a large investment of means . . . " (Quoted in John 1981). We must recall that the church-run food businesses are nonprofit organizations, which have limitations on the salaries they can pay and which, for example, during the 1975-79 period donated $20.5 million from their income to the church's evangelistic program. Most companies would use such profit for promotion and expansion. Yet this allocation of resources would seem to be in harmony with Ellen White's counsel.

Concerning health care, the traditional Adventist message, emphasizing preventive medicine and holistic treatment of the sick (ministering to body, mind, and spirit), using, as much as possible, diet and natural forces to heal deeply, has a special appeal today. The original sanitarium concept, modified to some extent to incorporate the best findings of modern medicine, would undoubtedly be a model for hospitals of the future. Yet unfortunately (we think) this original concept largely vanished during the 1950s and 1960s. Adventist sanitariums changed their names to "hospitals" and Ellen White's teachings about the use of drugs were partially or largely forgotten. To some extent the shift was a financial expedient; sanitariums could not get money from state or federal Medicare-type programs and belief in the value of medical drugs among Americans was at its peak. Today Adventists are doing excellent work with programs in smoking cessation, alcohol detoxification, weight management, etc. Yet the medical and health care message is no longer the widely heard clarion call that it once was. It has been blended with the message of the American medical establishment, which is now increasingly called to question. A clear alternative is again needed, a new and vital synthesis, again emphasizing prevention and healthful living, drawing the best from the traditional Adventist health message and modern medical science. New institutions and new leaders are needed to take this message to nation greatly afflicted with degenerative diseases and searching for sound information about diet, nutrition, and daily living, which promote both good health and a spiritual life.

The above assessment should be taken as merely our personal view. We take the risk of presenting it only because we feel the potential of the original Adventist message is so great and so needed. We also feel that if Ellen White were to return again to this world she would surely start the work of health reform anew and that the fundamentals of her teaching would be very similar to what they were originally.