An increasing awareness to ensure overall good health has brought a new category to the beverage industry: functional beverages. These beverages come from the notion that drinks should not only quench thirsts but also provide additional health benefits such as replenishing nutrition, providing energy, preventing ailments and promoting healthy lifestyles. The trend toward sipping functional beverages on a regular basis is likely to continue to grow as the population makes dietary alterations to be more healthful.

Historically, soy was never a significant part of the American diet, although soybeans were second to corn as the nation's most valuable crop. Soy beverages were a niche market with a small consumer base, mainly vegetarians and people with specific health needs, such as lactose intolerance. Today, that is no longer the case. Thanks to emerging popularity of the high-protein diet in the U.S., soy beverages are experiencing growing sales. These beverages have answered the demand for quality protein sources low in calories, and are inexpensive. Soy beverages also have benefited from scientific research linking soy consumption to low levels of cholesterol and reduced incidence of such ailments as breast cancer and osteoporosis. With the Food and Drug Administration's (Washington) 1997 endorsement of soy as a quality protein source, many consumers are attracted to the preventative health benefits of soy for long-term good health.

Soy beverages are a convenient way to include soy in the daily diet. Soy protein is a complete source of protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids the body requires. The naturally occurring presence of isoflavones helps control the growth and regulation of many different types of cells by affecting the activity of certain enzymes and the level of specific growth factors. Soy beverages may be fortified with the addition of calcium carbonate, vitamin A and trace amounts of manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. Additionally, fiber is being used to enhance the health benefits of soy.

According to a study by Frost and Sullivan's Food and Beverage Group (Palo Alto, Calif.), soy beverages are one of the fastest-growing segments in the functional beverages industry. Last year, soy beverages were a $622 million market. However, it is expected to grow to a $1.78 billion market in 2010 with a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 17%. The addition of new consumer groups to the consumer portfolio of soy beverages is the key driver to such expansion.

Even with the tremendous growth in soy beverages, the manufacturing base is still small, and consists of only a few major specialty companies. These include White Wave (Boulder, Colo.), Hain-Celestial Group (Uniondale, N.Y.), 8th Continent (Minnetonka, Minn.), Vitasoy (Ayer, Mass.), and SunSoy (Mumbai, India). These five companies produce and promote about 25 different product lines. Generally, soymilk is the strongest-selling formulation of soy beverages, as adding soy to juice varieties has not been very well received in the market.

While specialty and natural food stores have long known the soy beverage category is promising, mainstream grocery stores have been slow to get on board. Only recently have these supermarkets responded to greater consumer interest by providing more shelf space to soy beverages. White Wave's SILK (Dean Foods, Dallas) soymilk, for example, can be found in the refrigerated section of mainstream retail outlets. The brand also is commonly seen in the dairy section next to regular milk, as well as in the aseptic shelf-stable form, or ESL (extended shelf life) packaging. Half gallons and quart sizes in the dairy section encourage consumer trial of soymilk instead of regular milk. Catering to the growing demand for “grab-and-go” soy beverages, the Tetrapak and single-serve bottles also are becoming much more prevalent for consumer convenience.

Despite the increasing popularity of soy beverages, manufacturers are struggling to formulate a balanced, good-tasting product. Unfortunately, soy has an unpleasant “beany” and rancid oil-like taste caused by the lipoxygenase enzyme. Since it remains difficult to eliminate the taste totally, some manufacturers opt to just mask it by adding a stronger flavor. In many cases, companies have chosen to sacrifice the health benefits derived from soy beverages by adding a large amount of sugar in their products to result in a palatable taste.

Currently, three main flavors are standard in the soy beverage category—original, vanilla and chocolate. Since soy protein can be added to many dairy-like products, the emphasis remains low on new flavors, but a green tea flavor from Hain-Celestial's Westsoy and carob from Imagine Foods (Garden City, N.Y.) did appear, adding some product diversity.

Considerable improvements in color, texture (“mouthfeel”) and consistency (“drinkability”) also are needed to propel higher consumption of soy beverages. Soy often leaves a chalky feel in the mouth, creating a medicine-like flavor. At a time when flavor is gaining importance in functional beverages, the effort to eliminate off-note flavors is necessary to ensure product acceptance. Food technologists in the soy industry continue to work on flavor masking, and modifying technologies and manufacturing processes are in place to tackle this challenge. Stabilizer blends that contain pectin, for example, reduce the amount of sediment in beverages by protecting the source of protein during heat processing and pasteurization.

At present, soy beverages are priced at the premium end, when compared to dairy beverages. For refrigerated 64oz. units of soymilk, the retail price may range from $2.99 to $3.29, depending on the outlet of sale. For shelf-stable aseptic versions, a 16oz. unit of soy beverage may run from $1.29 to $1.59. This pricing likely will drop in the near future, as consumers seek not only a performing product that delivers at a cheap price, but also a product that competes within the highly competitive mainstream beverage market.

Soy beverages represent only a small percentage of beverage consumption in the U.S., especially when compared to carbonated drinks. However, with increasing acceptance and consumption of soy beverages by mainstream consumers, the market has never experienced a better momentum.