Soy Trends: Still a ‘Super Food’?

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | March 1, 2012

Despite advancements in processing and formulating, the consumer penchant for soy foods and beverages isn’t what it used to be, compelling innovators to find new ways to innovate with the humble bean.

In the years since soy achieved mainstream status in the U.S. marketplace, manufacturers have found a litany of novel uses for soy and its various components. Most commonly a key ingredient in protein bars and shakes, technology has advanced the sector to the point where soy protein can be incorporated into applications never before possible—a good thing considering the current market for soy products isn’t as bright as it once was.

According to a recent report from Global Industry Analysts Inc. (GIA), San Jose, CA, the global market for soy foods is expected to be worth more than $42 billion by 2015. However, while GIA indicated the market increased 6% from 2006-2007, recent data from Mintel, Chicago, IL, and SPINS, Schaumburg, IL, showed the soy food and beverage market declined 16% from 2008 to 2010. While some of the backslide was attributed to the recession and consumers cutting back on premium-priced soy items, competition from other heart-healthy foods and soy-free milk alternatives challenged the industry and poached soy sales. 

“Aside from the depressed economy, consumers are experiencing soy burnout,” said David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel, Chicago, IL. “Not too long ago, American consumers were told soy is a ‘super food’…but now they’re hearing that they may be getting too much. With soy aversion now a relevant concern, there are tons of competitive products available that have made it easy to switch to something new.”

Soy has also proven to be an incredibly polarizing ingredient. According to Mintel’s research, at least half of those surveyed reported using soy because they liked the taste. Interestingly, taste was also the main reason non-soy users steered clear (45%). About a quarter of these non-users also indicated that soy is too expensive.

Looking ahead, Mintel expected the market for soy food and beverages to continue its downward spiral, declining another 17% from 2010 to 2012, due to several factors, including competitive non-soy-based product threats, higher ingredient prices passed on to consumers, soy burnout and soy allergies.

The State of Research

Soy has amassed a prolific catalogue of research underscoring its health benefits, not the least of which center around it being an excellent source of amino acid-rich dietary protein. Ongoing research into the many nutritional facets of soy has continued to reveal new avenues for health and usage applications.

“The latest research [published] in Radiotherapy and Oncology suggests that soy isoflavones may boost lung cancer treatment effectiveness,” said Alexandra Shnaiderman, marketing communications manager and trader for Israel-based Solbar Industries Ltd. “Furthermore, according to a randomized controlled trial published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (September 2011) soy protein supplementation improves the lipid profile among healthy individuals.”

Soy’s hallmark benefits have historically been its effect on heart health, bone support, breast and endometrial cancer, and symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes.

Earlier this year, researchers from Pharmavite LLC, Northridge, CA, published a study in the Journal of Women’s Health that concluded doses of a soy germ-based nutritional supplement containing S-equol improved menopausal symptoms, including significantly reducing hot flash frequency in postmenopausal Japanese women.

S-equol is a compound produced after soy consumption by the natural metabolism of the isoflavone daidzein by certain bacteria present in the digestive tract. “It is believed that S-equol…interacts with specific estrogen receptors to promote the improvement in menopausal symptoms,” said Belinda Jenks, PhD, director of scientific affairs and nutrition education at Pharmavite LLC, the maker of NatureMade vitamins and minerals. “Data from this study and other clinical studies, including those done with U.S. women, show that the supplement SE5-OH containing S-equol may serve as a promising alternative for reducing the frequency of hot flashes and perhaps other menopausal symptoms.”

In the double-blind, randomized study, researchers observed a reduction in the daily frequency and severity of the women’s hot flashes, and in the severity of neck/shoulder muscle stiffness after 12 weeks of treatment.

The researchers explained that S-equol binds to the same estrogen receptors as naturally occurring estrogen, but with a stronger affinity for the estrogen beta-receptor. On binding to these receptors, S-equol mimics some, but not all, activities of estrogen without increasing or stimulating the growth of breast cancer cells.

But not all soy studies relating to the health of postmenopausal women have been favorable. “There has been some negative publicity in regard to soy’s impact on hormones,” noted Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta, speaking on behalf of Ecuadorian Rainforest LLC, Belleville, NJ. “While soy may be protective against breast cancer, the estrogen-like effects in isoflavones may be harmful to women who already have breast cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, more work needs to be done before any dietary recommendations can be made.” 

Creating Opportunities

Beyond relying on favorable research to help sell products, processors are looking both inward and outward to find novel ways to stimulate market growth.

For Keith Parle, commercial vice president, Cereal Business Unit, Kerry Ingredients and Flavours, Beloit, WI, the most exciting advances in soy protein pertain to how the industry continues to make proteins perform better in finished food systems. “We’re looking at new technologies that will improve flavor; technologies that allow you to hide it in a food system, like in a bar or in chocolate, caramels or cookies,” he said, adding that Kerry markets soy protein crisps and flakes that range from 30-90% protein and are designed to give consumers a crunchy textural experience without the innate formulating challenges associated with traditional powdered proteins.

In addition to Kerry’s existing, conventional, hexane-based soy protein isolates, the company also developed a line of hexane-free soy proteins that Mr. Parle said were designed for consumers (and in turn, brand owners) concerned about “the hexane issue,” and additionally afforded Kerry the opportunity to market natural and organic options that offer a creamier, “less green” flavor profile.

In January, Kerry also broadened its existing extruded soy protein Tots line with the addition of tiny, .6 mm Microtots that offer another kind of crunchy texture for products that, for instance, have a caramel layer to yield a caramel crunch profile.

Like Kerry, Solbar recently added to its soy protein product portfolio with the launch of an all-in-one textured vegetable protein called Supertex, an extruded blend of soy-derived, textured vegetable protein suitable for use in variety of vegetarian and meat-enhancement applications. According to the company, the blend’s proteins form into a configuration that, upon exit from the extruder, expands into a fibrous structure with the texture characteristic of meat, resulting in a “juicy, meat-like vegetarian option with excellent textural and chewing qualities, superior water-holding capacity, a neutral taste and pale color manufacturers can customize to fit any number of flavor profiles and identities.”

St. Louis, MO-based Solae solidified its commitment to develop new ingredients with the announcement that it would lead a $14 million research project dubbed MagPro2Life. The project will use “smart magnetic particles” to separate and extract beneficial components during processing in an effort to bring healthier, high value food to the consumer.

The company pointed to how, in a soy or fermentation broth, the challenge of separating small amounts of beneficial proteins makes it difficult to produce economical high purities. “The new technology can overcome drawbacks in membrane and chromatographic separation technology,” Solae said. The project will be shaped by the expertise of researchers from Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the U.K., and brings together universities, research institutes, subject matter experts and enterprises.

Closer to home, Soy Labs LLC is also working collaboratively to generate new opportunities in soy. The company paired with Missouri Plant Science Center (MPSC), an alliance consisting of The University of Missouri, the Missouri Soybean Association and the Missouri Technology Corporation all working together with private companies to develop new technologies to overcome the challenges of market entry.

Ryan Schmidt, president of Soy Labs LLC, explained how the convergence of resources were utilized in the development of Soy Labs’ LunaSoy and Lunasin XP products throughout the design and validation process. ”University researchers and staff at the National Center for Soybean BioTechnology, located on the Columbia campus, provided technical support in identifying the specific non-GMO soybean germplasms that would optimize the desired characteristic (lunasin peptide) in the finished product,” he said. “The Colleges of Human Environmental Sciences and Veterinary Medicine are conducting clinical trials that will help substantiate the existing body of research for the ingredients. Through the university, Soy Labs was paired with other entrepreneurial companies, such as Dietary Innovations and Value Ag to conduct feasibility studies and determine the commercial market potential for the proposed new technologies.”

A separate soy powder, LunaRich, was the first commercial ingredient to be manufactured at MPSC and was a joint research and development product of Soy Labs and Reliv International, Inc., Chesterfield, MO. LunaRich, developed to ensure the integrity and bioavailability of the lunasin peptide, is currently being formulated into a nutritional product that will be sold exclusively by Reliv’s independent distributors.

Beyond creating new ingredient iterations, Mintel suggested processors and manufacturers in search of ways to drive growth in the soy/soy protein segment get creative with entries in existing categories. “Product developers may be able to gain new users by blending soy ingredients with nuts and grains to create innovative, better tasting, and possibly more affordable food and beverages,” concluded Mintel’s Mr. Browne. 

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