Recent research from the US has shown that consumer interest in soyfoods is rising fast, with 30% of the population consuming soy at least once a month. Other regions lag behind, but a growing awareness of the link between health and diet looks set to drive mounting demand for soy products, Catherine Sleep reports.

The 13th Annual Consumer Attitudes About Nutrition survey, which was published last month, demonstrated that continued interest in health and dietary issues in the US is driving increased demand for functional foods such as soy. The United Soybean Board (USB), an industry body dedicated to increasing soybean demand, sponsored the study and was quick to flag up this link between healthy eating trends and rising soy consumption.
Soy has been shown to lower trans fat and saturated fat content, a key element in the battle against cardiovascular disease (CVD), and, in the US at least, this message is getting across. According to the survey, the perception of soy as a healthy food jumped significantly in 2006, with 82% of respondents believing it to be a healthy ingredient – up 15% from 67% who thought so in 1998. Thirty percent of consumers ate soy foods once a month or more. Over half of respondents had tried soy foods or beverages in restaurants and over one-third said they would order soy products if they could find them on the menu.

What consumers say and what they do can be two very different things, but recent statistics back up the perceived market growth. According to Mintel, between 2001 and 2004, food manufacturers in the US launched more than 1,600 new foods containing soy, averaging 400 new products every year. Looking ahead, a new report from just-food, Global market review of functional foods, estimates that the US soy foods market will reach a value of more than US$14bn by 2012.

Yet soy remains one of the most contentious products in the food industry, and the US is way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of both value and volume sales growth.

While plant sterols are the most frequently used ingredients in heart healthy new product development (NPD), soy, soy proteins and soy isoflavones are increasingly marketed as preventative ingredients for CVD. However, soy is often ignored in the functional food debate in Europe, perhaps as a consequence of the controversy surrounding the destruction of rainforests and genetic modification.

In fact, the soy industry is keen to avoid categorisation as a functional food. Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America (SANA), tells just-food: “Perhaps not all our members would classify soy foods as functional foods, but they are unmistakably recognised for their health benefits.”

In Europe, Bernard Deryckere, president of the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers Association (ENSA), tells just-food: “We would like to stress that soy is not considered as a functional ingredient in Europe.” However, Deryckere goes on to say: “People are aware of the fact that soy is cholesterol-free and rich in high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and calcium.”

Again, the absence of a clear definition of functional food appears to be causing confusion. While the soy industry is keen to promote soy as a healthy food, it is more wary of defining itself as a functional food. Regardless of the industry’s desire to steer clear of a functional food label, consumers’ perceptions are most important.

Ongoing criticism and negative media attention are not the sole reasons for the slower uptake of soyfoods outside the US: taste is also a major hurdle. Many European consumers dislike the taste, or are discouraged from trying a soy product because of negative taste perceptions. John Allaway, commercial director of Alpro Soya, one of the leading soy food companies in Europe, tells just-food: “We strive to overcome the negative taste perceptions some consumers have of soy and we believe that taste is one of the most important factors, particularly for those trying soy for the first time. Continuing to invest heavily in product upgrade and our national sampling campaign is paramount to securing new customers.”

One strategy being implemented in Europe is marketing soy products on their essential fatty acid (EFA) content, as much attention is currently being paid to the EFAs omega 3 and omega 6 in the region. It has also been marketed as an alternative to meat or dairy, although Allaway stresses that: “Alpro is used alongside dairy products because of its natural health benefits and taste”.

This notwithstanding, it is likely that the growth of the soy foods markets in the US and Europe will continue to be driven by health concerns. Recent years have seen claims that soy has the potential to reduce the risk of various conditions including prostate cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Soymilk manufacturers are also making a particular effort to target women, as soy is claimed to reduce the risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis and relieve symptoms of the menopause.

With health and dietary concerns set to remain a key driver of growth in the food sector, soy will undoubtedly be one of the products to benefit, although it is likely to be some time before consumers in Europe embrace soyfoods as wholeheartedly as their counterparts in North America.

Get more information on the new just-food report  Global market review of functional foods – forecasts to 2012