Soy Story 2: a mainstream hit?

US sales are predicted to remain in double figures while in Europe the category is also showing strong growth. Shane Starling assesses what?s driving the market and investigates the latest applications

The bulk of the world?s soy consumption occurs in China, Korea and Japan, generally in the form of sauces, curds, soups, milks, flours and oils. It?s a stable market — fundamentally unchanged in centuries.

Soy?s Western history is far shorter and far less stable, and in recent times, quite remarkable for its rise to prominence. If your regular Western citizen doesn?t know about probiotics; doesn?t know about plant sterols, herbal infusions or fibre; salt replacers or reduced trans fat oils; about anything functional foodish at all, chances are they will know something about soy. How it can be good for certain women. How it can benefit cholesterol reduction and the heart. Bone health. Cognition. The list goes on (even if the science always doesn?t).

A recent consumer study conducted by the United Soy Board found 74 per cent of Americans perceive soy as being healthy. The study also found 90 per cent of Americans recognise soy milk, with one quarter consuming soy foods or soy milk at least once a week.

?Shifts in perceptions tend to occur ?on the fringes? — and that is precisely what we saw with soy,? says Cargill Health Food and Technologies marketing manager, Kristin Heimerl. ?In the 1960s and ?70s, soy won the interest of the counterculture and became the darling of the health food industry. Today the heart health claim in some markets and the worldwide avalanche of publicity have driven soy increasingly mainstream.?

This is especially so in the US and Australia, as well as parts of Europe, such as the UK and Belgium. In the US, the soy foods and beverages market has been growing at about 20 per cent or more per annum for 20-plus years. That growth appears to be levelling out somewhat but growth will remain in double figures for some years to come according to most estimates. The US soy ingredients market will double and push through $1 billion for the first time by 2007, according to market researcher Freedonia. Indeed, soy protein topped a list of ingredients top food executives said will grow their business in a 2004 Prepared Foods survey — followed by calcium, dietary fibre, omega fatty acids, probiotics, whey protein, high oleic and fats/oils.

?Soy isoflavones will experience robust growth, with increases of nearly 23 per cent yearly through 2007, stimulated by increasing use in nutraceuticals to alleviate menopausal symptoms, maintain bone density and aid in other health applications,? Freedonia predicts.

Isoflavone-rich soy offerings like Acatris? non-GMO Soylife ingredient are also increasingly being used in foods. ?Better technologies mean we can put ingredients like Soylife into a greater range of food and supplements matrixes — even cosmetics,? says Laurent Leduc, president of ingredients supplier Acatris North America?s health division.

Technological advances have opened up new development opportunities for frontier applications such as sub-beverage categories. Ingredients like Cargill?s Prolisse soy isolate are aimed at just such producers. At the time of writing, Cargill had collaborated with two US beverage manufacturers, including a chai tea with 10g of soy protein per serving, and a women?s sports beverage with 6.25g of soy protein per serving.

In Europe, PROSOY Research and Strategy estimated the soy foods market at $1.85 billion in 2003 and expanding at 20 per cent. ?The demand for soy-based milks, yoghurts and desserts is growing as a result of changes in lifestyle, growing food intolerance and allergies, as well as the positive health image of soy,? observes Gerard Klein Essink, PROSOY senior researcher. ?New regulations are also likely to have an impact. A pan-European acceptance of the UK health claim (Joint Health Claims Initiative approval of August 2002) would certainly be a major platform for more innovation.? Germany and Spain are the fastest growing Euro markets, he notes.

Datamonitor Productscan Online reports a sharp rise in European soy product launches with 648 introductions in the first 10 months of 2004, compared with 563 in 2003, 372 in 2002 and 188 in 2001. Klein Essink points to Belgium as a good example of a sophisticated soy market, where end-product advertising has driven interest. ?Alpro has been able to convey the message about the health benefits of soy,? he states. ?They have a product range consisting of 13 different soy drinks, 11 desserts, seven yoghurts, ice cream, cream alternatives and spreads. Household penetration and per-capita consumption of dairy-free is higher in Belgium than any other European market.?

A similar situation is occurring in the UK. Although Alpro had a long-life soy milk on the UK market for many years, it was the arrival of So Good International, a UK-based joint venture between DuPont and Australian health foods company Sanitarium, that energised a new category. ?What kick-started the market was the launch of So Good chilled soy milk in 2000,? says Nigel Duffin, So Good?s technical director. Within weeks of that launch, Alpro debuted its own chilled soy milk. ?Now there are quite a few chilled soy milks. The rest of the market is own-label and the branded share of the business is increasing as the own-label share decreases,? notes Duffin.

Chilled soy milk now accounts for about 0.5 per cent of the UK chilled milk market and is growing at 20-25 per cent annually. Long-life soy milk still has 70 per cent of the market, but chilled soy milk is growing at a faster rate.

On the ingredients front, Leatherhead Food International valued the European market at $170 million in 2003, with the UK accounting for 61 per cent of sales, followed by France with 24 per cent. Processed meat, functional and weight control foods, bread, and supplements were the most popular categories.

Back in the US, Frost & Sullivan industry analyst Kathy Brownlie notes: ?Soy protein is catching up with whey protein in terms of usage. Efforts are on to bring out improved versions of soy protein that enable better assimilation and utilisation of protein by the human body."

Yet, despite cost advantages, soy has a long way to go before it is valued as highly as whey protein by the majority of food manufacturers, according to Anthony Almada, president and chief scientific officer of consultancy IMAGINutrition. ?There needs to be a bunch of studies comparing soy to whey protein in humans, looking at a variety of parameters including estrogens and testosterone. Two studies have shown soy protein drops blood testosterone in males,? Almada states. ?Soy needs to overcome flavour issues among mass consumers, whey protein counter-attacks and the perception by males that soy equals female.?

There are further problems, he believes, in communicating soy?s purported benefits. ?The favourable science has been communicated effectively — but only to women,? he notes. ?Yet several National Institutes of Health studies showing soy protein or soy isoflavones promote breast cancer have been suppressed and the soy industry needs to deal with the ramifications of that.?

On a positive note, the world?s premier soy brand, Dean Foods-owned White Wave, expects to be the first billion dollar soy brand by 2007. White Wave?s Silk soy milk is available in 97 per cent of US supermarkets and is also the most deeply penetrated organic food in the US — proof that soy brands have big business potential.

?Consumers have a strong opinion about what kinds of foods are appropriate for soy,? adds Cargill?s Heimerl. ?Consumers today accept soy in products such as bars, veggie burgers, yoghurts and meal replacement beverages. Forces such as time, trial and industry innovation will slowly transform deep-seated consumer perceptions — broadening mindsets and extending acceptance to other product arenas. We?re seeing it already.?

New ingredients, varieties, matrixes, formulations and categories have reinvented the ways in which soy is being consumed — and by whom. In its second pitch for public acceptance, soy has truly become the versatile bean soy zealots have said it was all along.

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