Natural Foods Merchandiser

Who Are the Soy Consumers?

They might just be men.

They don't all drink milk.

They won't sacrifice taste for health.

These are just three things we know about soy consumers. And, with soy protein slipping into everything from pasta to smoothies, it's likely a lot of soy consumers don't even know they're soy consumers.

The United Soybean Board's annual study found this year that 28 percent of Americans consume soyfoods or beverages once a week or more, with soymilk, tofu and soy burgers topping the list. Soy consumption grew 60.7 percent over the past five years, according to GMA/IRI Times & Trends.

Well-publicized health claims for soyfoods have driven many mainstream consumers to seek them out. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a statement in 1999 that links soy to reduced risk for heart disease through lower cholesterol levels. Less well known, but similarly compelling, are studies that suggest soy consumption boosts bone health, cuts breast and prostate cancer risk and eases menopause symptoms.

For consumers caught up in the low-carbohydrate trend, soy appeals as a high-protein food that works in low-carb diets without adding fat. The food industry is working overtime to improve the taste, texture and handling properties of soymilk, soy oils, soy flour and soy nuggets, the better to roll out soy-enhanced bread, cereal, cheese, meat analogs and sweets.

"Everyone's doing either low-carb or soy or both," says Santa Monica, Calif., marketing consultant Amy Goldsmith.

Moms And Pops Like Soy
Who's eating soy? "I can't give you names," says Laura Cross with a laugh. She's the president of Seapoint Farms, an edamame soybeans producer in Huntington Beach, Calif.

But she can give you trends. "We're seeing major, major headway into the mass markets—the average mom and pop consumer who wants to get more healthy food into their diet," she says. "Years ago, it was the staunch vegetarian, the obsessed health-food consumer. Now it goes from children to senior citizens."

Seapoint's frozen edamame have been selling everywhere from East Coast to West, college snack bars to hospitals. Chefs from Chinese and Mexican restaurant chains are calling to source them, as are sausage manufacturers looking to add edamame into pork or beef products. "We're just on the cusp of the explosion," Cross says.

Back in 1996, when Cross and her husband launched Seapoint, nobody outside a few Japanese restaurants even knew what edamame were. "They were eating the pod," she remembers. "There was so much confusion: Who's going to eat this? What do you do with this? What IS this?"

No more.

Health consciousness and concerns about weight, cancer and other ills have become an equal-opportunity area for both men and women.

"It's not as slanted toward female as it used to be," says Paul Pruitt, chief operating officer at ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., the Beverly, Mass., food manufacturer recently acquired by Abbott Labs.

ZonePerfect has been using soy protein in its products for at least six years, Pruitt says. The nuggets "give our bars that crunch appeal." Instead of being viewed as a diet food, Pruitt says, ZonePerfect bars are being picked up by a younger, male customer who's looking for a healthier snack.

But demographic changes for the bar maker have come as its retail channels have changed. ZonePerfect bars are sold in Target, Costco, Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, supermarkets and convenience stores.

"In the past, our core customer was the soccer mom of the world," Pruitt notes. As distribution grows among mass merchandisers, "the tail begins to wag the dog. Your profile of your typical consumer begins to change."

Although the number of mainstream soy users is growing, further expansion in that demographic faces some challenges, says A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends and Solutions in Escondido, Calif.

What Consumers Think

  • 39 percent of adults believe their diet is deficient in soy
  • Nearly a third of consumers say it's important for their supermarket to offer vegetarian foods
  • 62 percent of Americans think eating soy will help them lose weight
  • Seven in 10 consumers have changed their eating habits in the last five years for health reasons;
  • Soy beverages grew from $100 million in sales in 1995 to $500 million in 2000
  • Sources: NMI Health & Wellness Trends 2003; CAMS; United Soybean Board; Iowa Soybean Promotion Board

    "The market is strong and stable but flat," she says, "[Soy] will suffer challenges from other proteins that offer a wider range of health benefits and amino acids." Combinations like whey (a dairy protein) and soy have been coming on strong in the energy bar business and will be popping up in other areas, she predicts.

    Sneaky Ingredients
    Soy consumers will not sacrifice taste for health benefits, however. The amount of sugar in soymilk has risen over the last several years as manufacturers strive to build a flavor profile that consumers will buy, according to a study by the Center for Food Reformulation. The study looked at 64 soymilk products and found between 4 and 16 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, with the lowest doses of sweetener found in the market leader, Silk.

    Look for soy to become an ever-stealthier part of many packaged foods. At last summer's Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting, ingredient vendors showcased soy formulations that offered smooth textures, bland flavor profiles and improved solubility, the better to blend invisibly into the final product.

    Some examples: Cargill Health & Food Technologies of Minneapolis showed a prototype of a ready-to-drink raspberry tea spiked with AdvantaSoy Clear brand of isoflavones, Oliggo-Fiber inulin and calcium. Billed as a whiter, lighter soy liquid, with less obvious taste and smell, the clear formulation is designed for beverages, candy and other light-flavored products.

    What Consumers Eat

    Soy products used regularly

    • Soymilk (17%)
    • Tofu (12%)
    • Veggie burgers (12%)
    • Protein bars (5%)
    • Nuts (4%)

    Soy products tried at least once

    • Tofu (48%)
    • Veggie burgers (44%)
    • Soymilk (39%)
    • Nuts (26%)
    • Protein bars (22%)

    Source: United Soybean Board's 2003-04 annual study

    At the IFT show, Solae Co. showed off a high-moisture extruded soy ingredient "to provide consumers a more meat-like eating experience," a spokesman said. And at Archer Daniels Midland Co., whole-bean soy powder has been added to the NutriSoy line to put both isoflavones and fiber into dairy and dairy-analog products.

    At a time when the benefits of whole foods are being touted in the popular press, some natural foods retailers will shrink from offering "meat-like eating experiences." But if customers seek these products out in an effort to eat closer to the bottom of the food chain, stealth soy may be the way the industry goes.

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 18, 22

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