Chalky. Floury. Soily. Beany. Green. Over the years, these have been typical descriptors of soy foods and beverages. Overcoming such flavor notes has plagued "the versatile bean" from the very beginning of its rocky journey from millennia-old staple food in Asia to mainstream acceptance in Western markets. The fact soy is more popular now than ever is testament to its improved flavour profile — although problems remain, and much of the flavor improvement has come with a nutrition levy attached.
When soy entered the Western mainstream consciousness in the 1960s, its time in the limelight was brief. The reason for this, apart from a limited number of products and simplistic marketing, was its taste. Curious consumers tried soy milk, or tofu — and for many, that first taste was their last. The taste didn't meet their expectations, so soy reverted to its former status as a niche food for core health food consumers.
Things are different now that soy's second coming is well under way. Mainly through the use of sweeteners and a repositioning in the chilled aisle at the supermarket, soy beverages have taken off — mostly in the form of milks — particularly in the US, Australia and parts of Europe. According to Freedonia, the US market for soy foods will reach nearly $3.7 billion by 2012, with the ingredients market pushing through $1 billion by 2007. A United Soy Board survey found one quarter of US households consume soy milk or soy foods at least once a week and soy milk was recognised by 90 per cent of Americans.
While soy retains its healthy image, the use of sweeteners in drinks is challenging this positioning. Although these beverages retain the healthy components native to the soybean, the sweetener levels in some products are obscenely high — often equivalent to full-sugar carbonated drinks and juices.
Which is why much of the development work being conducted by many ingredients companies and soy growers is so exciting. It promises to deliver soy's health promise with the taste issues removed and without the need for non-nutritious masking agents.
Companies like Acatris, ADM, Cognis, Cargill, New Sun Nutrition, Solae and others are producing taste-neutral soy ingredients that can go into an array of foods and beverages that will provide soy benefits without the taste hangover. And growers are developing soy strains — GM or otherwise — that will allow soy milks and other beverages and foods to more readily meet taste demands. "Better technologies mean we can put soy ingredients into a greater range of food and supplement matrixes — even cosmetics," says Laurent Leduc, president of Acatris North America's health division. "A lot of extraction processes lose ingredients that can be put back in the production process, and since many of these soy-based ingredients are increasingly close to taste-neutrality, they are becoming more popular with food and beverage manufacturers."
With this momentum, criticisms directed at soy milk brands like Silk (US), So Good (UK) and Alpro (Europe) — that it is only through loading their products with unhealthy sweeteners that they are able to attract mass sales — will be a thing of the past.
The path may then be cleared for soy to move into its third and fully mature stage of development, where soy products will be mainstream and in a variety of platforms: ice cream, bread, flour, supplements, bars, baked goods and, of course, beverages.
Take New Sun Nutrition's Intellisoy — a soluble soy food additive that provides the health benefits of soy germ in a near taste- and smell-neutral platform. Intellisoy was developed by phytochemical expert Dr Mitsunori Ono.
According to New Sun's vice president of soy foods, Troy Figgins, Ono applied the same principles used in tofu production to develop the ingredient over many years. "Dr Ono was able to extract out the natural, soluble phytochemicals while removing all of the other insoluble, and often bad-tasting components, such as protein, fat and ash," Figgins told FF&N. The result is a clear, ultra-soluble soy compound.
"Currently, if consumers want the benefits of soy they are limited to drinking soy milk or eating strange foods such as soy beans or tofu," says Figgins. "Many of these products have unfamiliar tastes and smells, and can be high in unwanted additional calories. Although there have been tremendous improvements in the flavour profiles, we still have a long way to go before consumers actually consider these products to be 'great tasting.'"
"In addition, the total variety of soy products is limited due to flavor issues. Many companies have told us they are developing interesting and exciting new soy projects, the kind that would open up soy to entirely new markets, but have been unable to make these products taste good."
For Figgins, companies like Intellisoy are paving the way to new food and drink platforms. "In the past, manufacturers who wanted to introduce soy products had been limited by the formulation constraints of soy protein or insoluble soy extracts. Now manufacturers can add ingredients like Intellisoy to existing products without worrying about changing the taste, look or mouth feel consumers know and love."
Dupont/Bunge joint venture Solae is another company developing user-friendly soy ingredients. "We are actively addressing the flavor of soy-based foods on many fronts," says Jean Heggie, Solae's marketing leader in the North America Food division.'"We have a technology development platform dedicated solely to exploring a variety of ingredients, processing and flavor technology approaches to improve the flavour of our soy-based ingredients even further in the years to come. This is central to the future of soy foods and their growing acceptance among mainstream consumers."
On a technical level, soy flavor can be addressed in several ways, Heggie says. "The most basic level is through the choice of higher value, higher protein soy protein ingredients. Our proteins are specifically formulated to function well in specific applications. Thus, proteins for beverages are far different than those we suggest for grain-based systems. Higher technology, higher protein soy ingredients are generally more bland, and more versatile across a broader range of applications. In grain-based applications, such as cereals and nutrition bars, the flavour notes inherent in soy are less problematic; in fact, they complement the existing flavour notes."
More delicately flavored systems such as beverages presented greater problems, however, "with today's flavour and processing technologies, as well as higher technology products, these flavor characteristics can be minimised in nearly all applications."
Food or beverage producers must work closely with ingredients suppliers to ensure they are getting the right ingredients. "Choosing the right protein for the application is the first step toward flavor success," Heggie says. "Another factor is applications know-how. Knowing how to formulate optimally with soy protein ingredients is one reason why we devote a considerable amount of our research and development resources to this function."
Another factor is flavor system selection. "Many of the more progressive flavor companies today offer flavor expertise and ingredients specifically designed to complement the inherent flavors found in soy-based foods. Developments in this area have been extremely important in improving the flavors of soy-based foods today."
How can an ingredients supplier like Solae improve, say, soy milk? Like this, says Heggie. Solae's soy protein isolates and ALPHA soy proteins offer a number of flavor and functionality advantages vs whole-bean extract — the predominate technology used in the soy milk segment.
First, they are higher in protein, so they offer the formulator more flexibility to choose the carbohydrate and fat ingredients that can affect the flavour of the end product. With more flexibility, you can choose ingredients that are more complementary to the flavor of the base soy protein and build the flavour you want.
Additionally, the fat content in a whole-bean extract presents limitations in fat-free soy milks, which are not an issue for soy protein isolates. Patented technology from Solae also offers stabilised calcium at the same protein-to-calcium ratio as milk protein. Thus, one can virtually eliminate so milk mineral sedimentation issues.
Kristin Heimerl, marketing manager at Cargill Health Food and Technologies, says new applications are only just beginning. "There are still soy products in the marketplace with poor taste," she says. "As long as these exist, negative perceptions will linger. [But] whey protein, due to use and marketing, is squarely positioned in one arena of the marketplace, and soy protein in another. In the future, however, we'll see the lines of demarcation blur, and increasingly the blending of proteins."
The grower: GMO-free in a GM nation
Minnesota-based Northland is an organic and IP-preserved soy grower. Its president, Peter Shortridge, discusses the latest trends:
How dramatic have soy taste changes been?
The taste, smell and texture of soy products have improved significantly over the past 30 years. In addition, there are now a range of options from unsweetened soy products to flavored products to sweeter "kid-friendly" versions.
How has this been achieved?
There are many reasons for the improvements: from the production standpoint, the quality of farming has improved in seed selection, planting, harvesting and cleaning. The development of better food-use, speciality variety soybeans has also had an impact.
What GM issues do you face?
A company committed to producing non-GM products may choose to use a wheat-based ingredient over a soy-based because there is a premium involved in guaranteeing the non-GM integrity of soy. Because of the increase in GM acres being planted, it is becoming more and more expensive to segregate non-GM soy from GM soy.