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Health and Nutrition Opportunities Appear Endless

If you haven't tried soyfoods lately, you haven't tried soyfoods. A far cry from the meat extenders many of us remember not-so-fondly from the '70s, those involved with the soyfoods industry today say that better-tasting soyfoods offer a whole range of health and nutrition opportunities for producers and consumers alike. And the market appears lucrative for companies catering to consumer demands.

"ADM pioneered the use of soy protein 40 years ago with the development of TVP, textured vegetable protein. Since then we've been working with food manufacturers worldwide to help them add soy protein to products like snack foods, protein bars, soups, meats, beverages and more," says Graham Keen, vice president, corporate marketing, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Decatur, Ill. "No longer are soyfoods consumers only vegetarians. Many mainstream consumers buy soy products because of their great taste and their interest in how soy can factor into their health and welfare. Consumers are looking for lifestyle foods tailored to enhancing and contributing to their everyday lives."

Christopher Koetke, associate dean of the School of Culinary Arts, Kendall College, Evanston, Ill., says today's consumers are more open to soy. "My students don't come to the table with the negative baggage about soy that the previous generation has. They are more ethnically inclined and very open to trying soyfoods," he says.

The United Soybean Board's (USB) 10th annual "Consumer Attitudes about Nutrition" study from 2003 backs these thoughts. The survey of 1,000 consumers found nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers perceived soy products as healthy and think that soy may provide a healthier addition to their diet.

In fact, more people named specific health benefits of soy in the survey. More than one-third knew that consumption of 25 grams of soy protein a day can help reduce risk of coronary heart disease. In addition, many recognized soy as a way to help fight obesity, encourage weight loss and provide relief from menopausal and postmenopausal symptoms - including use as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy.

"Major U.S. food corporations are diving headfirst into the soyfoods market, whether it is beverages, snack foods, analogs or bars," says Keen. "Consumers are turning to soyfoods not just for lunch but for breakfast, dinner and snacks. Currently, there is a huge trend toward hand-held snacks and eating on the move, and many of these products incorporate soy protein."

"People no longer have to make a special trip to health food stores because good-tasting soy products are available on shelves of mainstream grocery stores and supermarkets," adds Geri Berdak, director of public affairs for The Solae Company, St. Louis.

"Food manufacturers are looking to satisfy consumer needs by producing great-tasting, convenient and better-for-you foods by incorporating soy into already-established or new brands. Large food company investment in soy products is a key driver behind growth in the category," Berdak adds. "Soyatech reports sales in soyfoods grew by 13.8 percent in 2002 to nearly $3.6 billion. The projection for 2004 is more than $4 billion."

Berdak says the Solae Company helps food companies effectively position products in the marketplace based on the health value of their protein ingredients. "We see that the low-carb craze presents a great opportunity for soy protein," Berdak says. "A recent study conducted by the Valen Group indicated nearly 60 million Americans are on a low-carb diet, and another 40 million are considering it. Food product manufacturers are looking for ways to create low-carb versions of nearly every food product, and Solae soy protein is a perfect solution."

Research has shown that soy protein naturally contains many nutrients important for health and lacks the saturated fat and cholesterol associated with some animal proteins. "In addition, soy protein is the only plant-based protein equal in quality to animal-based protein, which allows it great versatility in food product application," she continues. As an example, the Solae Company has developed a way to reduce carbs in baked products such as burger buns and pizza crusts. "Using Solae soy protein, we are able to help create high-quality bakery applications that contain nearly a 50-percent reduction in the carbohydrate level as compared to their traditional counterparts."

Taste is also key to market success. "ADM is addressing soyfoods trends by, first and foremost, ensuring that soyfoods taste great," confirms Keen. "Our R&D teams have worked for years to improve the taste and texture of all soyfood applications. Secondly, ADM is getting the word out on the health benefits of soybeans."

ADM offers its customers use of the NutriSoy branding program, which provides education on the health benefits of soyfoods through national advertising and marketing programs of the NutriSoy brand. NutriSoy is also a national presenting sponsor of American Heart Association Heart Walk events in more than 800 communities nationwide.

"With sales nearing $5 billion per year - roughly the size of the U.S. bottled water market - soyfoods have definitely gone mainstream," says Keen. "You will see soy incorporated into more foods in the near future as the market grows by 10 percent every year." Y

Keying In On Consumer Health

As more of soy's health benefits are proven and publicized, consumers are keying in on soy to protect their health. Other, equally exciting applications show promise in the laboratory.

"There are several extremely active areas of research involving soy, such as cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, menopausal symptom relief, cognitive function, renal function and diabetes," says Mark Messina, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of nutrition, Loma Linda University, and president, Nutrition Matters Inc., Port Townsend, Wash. "Interest in soy is almost completely based on health benefits. Industry is responding quite effectively by producing a wide array of user-friendly soy products."

According to USB's soyfoods survey, most consumers perceived soy products as healthy, while those who rated soy as unhealthy decreased. Unaided, 29 percent reported that soy is good for the heart and 38 percent were aware consumption of 25 grams of soy protein per day reduces coronary heart disease risk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially recognized the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein in 1999, approving a health claim for foods with at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving.

About 26 percent of women surveyed reported awareness that soy might relieve menopause symptoms. Many menopausal and postmenopausal women chose soy over Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) in 2003 following clinical trials that found HRT may boost the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and pulmonary embolism.

Other health benefits for women are in a discovery stage. Paul Flakoll, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition (CDFIN), Iowa State University. CDFIN conducts research by bringing together scientists from a variety of disciplines to link food production, processing and distribution to human nutritional needs and consumer food choices. He says researchers there are looking at the effects of soy isoflavones on lowering cardiovascular risk and protecting bone mineral density.

Messina also sees isoflavones as an important focus. "The most important area of research over the next three to five years is osteoporosis. Many clinical trials have shown soy isoflavones reduce bone loss in early postmenopausal women," says Messina. "Two large, long-term studies are underway, which will produce some data within about 18 months. If successful, interest in isoflavones will rise to the next level. We need isoflavones to be viewed as important to reducing fracture risk as calcium."

Similarly, Messina predicts older men will flock to soy if more studies indicate a reduction in prostate cancer risk. "The prostate cancer data are very encouraging. A new study suggests soy may even be useful in treatment, not just prevention," he says. "Proving this link will be easier than proving the breast cancer link, but cancer in general is a difficult disease to study in comparison to heart disease and osteoporosis."

Nonetheless, Messina adds that the most exciting cancer hypothesis to date is that teenage soy intake may reduce adult risk of developing breast cancer. Research conducted in animals at the University of Alabama shows promise, and observational studies in humans have linked adolescent soy intake to a reduced risk of breast cancer.

"On the horizon, the effects of soy on cognitive function are most interesting," says Messina. "Animal research suggests that soy may be protective in the brain. Additional studies have found improved memory scores in people consuming soyfoods. Three clinical trials have shown benefit, but again we need longer and larger studies."

Other, ongoing work at Iowa State includes evaluating soy sphingolipids - fats found in soybeans that may be anti-cancer type agents - and studying soy sapanins, which are thought to be cholesterol-lowering tools for the GI tract. "Through both basic and applied research, we are looking at ways we can continue to improve health through nutrition," says CDFIN's Flakoll. "That is where the field of nutrition is going."

"In the health sciences and nutrition field, increasingly there is interest in matching a person's individual genetic makeup with specific dietary recommendations. But this is still years away from being practical," says Messina. "We need the kinds of clinical trials that make it into the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, which make physicians take notice. Thus far the studies have not approached this level, but the picture is definitely changing for the better." Y

Seeding Soy Solutions

Public researchers, seed companies and others within industry are working to enhance the soybean profile at the seed level to meet specific demands. Traits sought in new U.S. soybean varieties include those that can reduce saturated fat, increase flavor stability and eliminate the need for hydrogenation in soybean oil.

USB, through the Better Bean Initiative (BBI), has helped to evaluate the oil from a new soybean that eliminates the need for hydrogenation - a key discovery, given that the FDA will require food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat on food product labels by 2006. Walter Fehr, Iowa State University soybean breeder, released the 1 percent linolenic oil variety. Oil from the variety is being tested by the food industry this year.

"The 1 percent linolenic trait performs better than traditional hydrogenated soybean oil in frying applications and will be a very good choice for eliminating trans fats in foods," says Fehr. "We spent about 30 years developing the trait because it did not exist in the world soybean collection. Other special soybean traits have been found in the collection and are used directly by the breeder for variety development."

Soybeans developed through the BBI, whether through conventional breeding or biotechnology, will be identified with the new QUALISOY certification mark created by USB earlier this year. In order for a variety to be considered part of the QUALISOY family, it must meet the standards set to ensure quality control and assurance.

"QUALISOY is intended to provide a major boost for this compositional improvement initiative," says Ben Kampelman, Monsanto spokesperson, St. Louis. Monsanto pledged $8.4 million to the effort and has shared genetic information. "Sharing soybean gene sequence data is expected to help better understand the soybean's genetic makeup - a critical step in creating an improved crop - soybeans with better nutritional value, greater yields, as well as crops with enhanced oil and protein characteristics."

Pioneer also supports QUALISOY. "As an early leader in the development of enhanced oil quality soybeans in partnership with Iowa State, Pioneer has been actively involved in specialty soybean research since 1991," says John Soper, director of soybean research for Pioneer, Johnston, Iowa. "The recent formation of The Solae Company, a joint venture between DuPont and Bunge Ltd., is a sign of our continuing commitment to providing soy products with enhanced end-use properties. As consumer demand for healthier food products increases, we are well positioned to offer soybean varieties that combine enhanced end-use characteristics with performance levels that growers expect."

Kampelman says Monsanto is working on several soybeans with enhanced or improved traits, including low linolenic soybeans, Omega-3 soybeans for food uses and improved protein soybeans for food and feed uses. The low linolenic varieties should be available in two years, while others are four to five years away. In the future, Monsanto plans to develop a soybean that will enable the production of saturated- and trans-fat-free oil.

"We see the future of soyfoods production as bright," says Kampelman. "Through research and investment in creating value-added soybeans, many soy-based products will emerge and benefit consumers through more nutritious and better-tasting foods and oils." Y

Marketing Soy For The Future

The United Soybean Board (USB) in 2003 found that nearly nine out of 10 consumers surveyed remain somewhat or very concerned about the nutritional content of food. During the past five years, seven in 10 consumers changed eating habits to address health or nutrition concerns. That, suggest food company and industry officials, is largely the marketing focus of the future.

"Continued growth means that large food companies will increase their attention and involvement in soyfoods," says John A. Schillinger, Ph.D., former Asgrow official and founder of Heartland Fields LLC, a soyfoods developer/marketer in Iowa. "One area that will grow dramatically will be foodservice, where major distributors will participate more willingly to meet not just the requests of vegetarians but of average consumers who want to eat light - one meal a day, several times a week. Soyfoods will become more central in the strategies of large companies but also will permit small companies to grow significantly. There are still niches where smaller companies can participate in and realize a profit."

One such focus is obesity. With more than half the adult population overweight, obesity has gained national attention as a major health risk. In the USB survey, 62 percent agreed that consuming soy-based foods can play a role in reducing obesity.

Schillinger says this is especially so for young people. "Soyfoods can play an important role in providing healthful, nutritious, good-tasting food products," he says. "This is true from school lunch menus to foodservice channels and the mainstream groceries."

Consumers also want convenience. Christopher Koetke, associate dean of the School of Culinary Arts, Kendall College, Evanston, Ill., says consumers don't have time to cook, and soyfoods are easily prepared and packaged as ready-to-eat.

Schillinger expects to see steady growth, including some double-figure annual growth, for soymilk and beverages, soy meat alternative entrées and snack foods as a result of such consumer interest. Heartland Fields has prepared for the marketplace by selecting soybean varieties that are specifically developed for food applications.

"These patent-pending varieties contain uniquely high levels of protein, healthier oils and isoflavones, with none of the bad taste often associated with soy," Schillinger says. "Some varieties are selected for textured soy protein production, while others are selected for their fit in snack products or soy beverages."

The USB survey suggested that overall consumer awareness of soy products has increased significantly. Soymilk achieved an 89 percent awareness rating in 2003. Regular use of soymilk climbed to 17 percent in 2003, and the percentage of consumers who tried soymilk increased to 39 percent. Other products that increased in consumption included soy burgers, soy protein bars and edamame (green soybeans).

"The popularity of soymilk has definitely grown with the advent of better, milk-like flavors plus the shelving of the product in the refrigerated cases of the store next to dairy milk," says Schillinger. "I believe new flavor masking and improved technology will soon result in a soymilk product mostly indistinguishable from dairy milk. Thus sales of soymilk and other soy beverage products will grow."

Schillinger predicts further growth for meat alternatives and snacks as well. "According to recent market surveys, soy entrées are the fastest-growing meat-alternative product category," he says. "Given the attention of the largest snack food companies to soy-enriched chips and energy bars, future sales in those categories are also most promising."

Ultimately, Schillinger says taste will drive consumer demand. "That's the supreme factor in perking interest in soyfoods for most mainstream customers," he says. "When consumers don't feel as if they are giving up anything in order to eat nutritious food that helps them keep fit, people will choose soy products more and more. They want textures similar to familiar foods and product types that are easily and quickly served."

Koetke says the soyfoods industry is embracing that concept. New soy yogurts, cheeses and other products are beginning to offer the flavor and function of their traditional counterparts. "My premise is that you have to deliver flavor, and soy can do this," he says. "The soyfoods industry is facing a golden opportunity. Soy is positioned positively in the public eye, and the industry is positioned to take advantage of that." Y

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer based in Edwardsville, Ill.

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