The Potential of Soy

August 28, 2012

Soy is going further, in everything from beverages to nutrition bars.

Soybeans have long been used as human food in Asia, where the market for traditional soyfoods-such as tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and natto-is sizeable. In recent years, however, breakthroughs in technology and processing have made it possible to use soybeans in new ways. These breakthroughs have created foods that are familiar to consumers but incorporate soy components, including soy protein for functional and/or nutritional purposes.

How extensive is the use of soy in the food and drinks industry? Very extensive, gauging by the fact that nearly a quarter of the food and drink launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in the 12 months ending March 2012 had a soy component of some kind.

Soy protein isolate, in particular, has become commonly used in the meat processing industry for emulsified meat products.

Rising evidence of soy’s potential health benefits in areas such as heart health, women’s health, and bone health has continued to drive outside interest, despite some adverse publicity about soy’s safety. In fact, over 80% of U.S. consumers rated soy products as healthy (up from less than 70% in 2001) in a 2011 survey of Consumer Attitudes about Nutrition by the United Soybean Board. Soy’s most cited health benefits are heart health, a good source of protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and lowering and regulation of female hormones/women’s health.

 

Products

While soymilk remains by far the most well-known soy product in the United States-at 90% awareness, according to the same 2011 United Soybean Board survey mentioned earlier-awareness is growing in other product categories, too. The same survey indicated that 57% of consumers are aware of soy veggie burgers; 42%, soy nuts; 39%, soy protein bars; 33%, cereal and energy bars; 31%, soy yogurt; and 18%, soy breakfast cereals.

Over one-third of the global food and drink launches marketed on an added protein platform contained soy, according to the recent Innova Market Insights report. The field was led by beverages, such as shakes, and cereal bars. It also encompassed a wide range of other products, including “ready” meals, breakfast cereals, bakery products, savory snacks, and sports supplements.

 

Beverages

Protein beverages have moved more from the specialist sports sector into the mainstream market in recent years, led largely by the development of ready-to-drink products. Consumers are now seeking these products for basic nutrients, such as protein and fiber; for weight management and/or generally maintaining a healthy lifestyle; and as a convenient on-the-go snack or meal replacement. The use of soy protein has been key in this market, although it is often in a blend with other proteins, namely whey.

And while the beverage market is still considered an underdeveloped one for soy, there are already relatively high levels of product activity, particularly in the United States, where launch examples over the past year or so include Bolthouse Farms’ addition of a Blended Coffee variant to its Protein Plus range of all-natural shakes. The product contains a proprietary blend of whey and soy proteins for improved performance. Coca-Cola subsidiary Odwalla even expanded the flavor options for its Super Protein and Protein Monster soy and dairy protein drinks.

 

Cereal Bars

The use of soy protein in the cereal bars market is also expanding, with two-thirds of launches in the 12 months ending March 2012 containing soy ingredients of some kind, according to Innova Market Insights. Cereal bars tend to promote a general health platform; however, protein content is more specifically emphasized in the performance sector, where sports/recovery and energy/alertness lines accounted for over one-fifth of total cereal bar launch activity. (Note that while the use of soy protein is up, launches with a specific “added protein” positioning fell from over 165 to single figures over the past five years, perhaps because significant protein is expected of most cereal bars now.)

Recent soy activity in the U.S. cereal bar market includes an extension of the Atkins Advantage low-carb meal-replacement bar range with Chocolate Orange and Chocolate Brownie variants, and a Balance Bar introduced in a Cookie Dough flavor.

 

New Competition

Soy dominates as a vegetable protein source, backed by good consumer awareness and a growing range of product applications. However, a range of new vegetable protein products is coming on-stream, based on other beans; nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables; and a non-vegetable source, mycoprotein, from the fungus family. Whether any of these sources becomes serious competition for soy remains to be seen.