The U.S. soy-based foods market has experienced slow growth in the past few years, with sales hovering around $5 billion. However, the industry is more nuanced than, and not as monolithic as, this overall number might suggest. Some soyfoods categories have done very well, and others have not. The major dichotomy within the industry is between soy as a characterizing ingredient and soy used as a functional ingredient in food products. That is, the difference is between soy ingredients that play a role in defining the product—as in the case of soymilk—or soy as an ingredient used to perform a specific function (binding agent, texturizer), such as in meat alternatives.

Even within food categories, this can be a tricky distinction. For example, soy protein is a functional ingredient for Clif Bar and Co., which doesn’t highlight its inclusion. But, soy also is a characterizing ingredient in Pharmavite LLC’s SoyJoy and MLO Inc./Genisoy products, which do highlight it.

Soymilk is, by far, the largest soyfoods category. It accounts for more than 20% of total soyfoods sales and is a clear example of a product that uses soy as a characterizing ingredient. Sales of major soymilk beverage brands have slowed in recent years, due in part to an increase in private label soymilk sales, but also due to increased competition from other non-dairy beverages, such as almond milk and rice milk. Interestingly, specialty juices and functional beverages—a small soymilk sub-category that features beverages that most often incorporate soy as functional ingredient only—have had an altogether different experience with very strong growth.

Tofu is another product in which soy, used as a characterizing ingredient, experienced a slight sales slump in 2010, down about 2%. In the more mainstream (food/drug/mass and natural products) supermarket channels, shelf space available to tofu has shrunk over the past few years, mostly because it competes with other vegetable protein foods, including meat alternatives, and bagged salads and other fresh vegetables. However, tofu is still experiencing strong growth in Asian markets, a considerably smaller retail channel, but suggesting continued growth potential for this category.

On the other end of the spectrum, some major soyfoods categories—using soy as a functional ingredient—have experienced strong growth.  The energy bar category continues to see incredible growth in mainstream channels, riding on the trend of convenient access to nutrition and energy. Energy bars are eaten for functional qualities—consumers may not even be aware their purchase contains soy protein. The exception is SoyJoy, which touted the healthful benefits of soy as an ingredient and experienced strong sales in 2008 and 2009. The company has since refocused its efforts on a younger audience, with the emphasis on attributes such as real fruit content and being gluten-free, in addition to being soy-based.

Another positive for soy came in the form of meat alternatives, another category that incorporates soy as a functional ingredient. It has experienced consistent growth in the past decade, adding richer, more complex flavors and products to consumers’ menus. Refrigerated meat alternatives have grown at a faster rate than frozen meat alternatives, but frozen meat alternatives account for more than 75% of the category. Growth remains especially strong in supermarkets, natural product supermarkets and club stores. According to Innova Market Insights, the number of U.S. food products claiming to be “meat free” or “meatless” on the package label grew 21% last year.

Given the trends in recent years, it appears the role soy plays as a product ingredient, whether it is characterizing or functional, is one indicator of potential product sales success, at least in the mainstream market. Added to this is the increasing use of soy in products such as desserts (think frozen treats and puddings) and dressings as a substitute for dairy.

Moreover, several macro market trends will continue to drive soyfoods sales. First, the health benefits of soy still motivate consumers. According to a United Soybean Board consumer study, 84% of U.S. consumers believe soy is healthy. Products that include soy for nutritional reasons, such as fortified, specialty soymilk drinks, continue to experience growth. Consumers’ desire for convenient access to nutrition and energy will also be a potential driver for the soyfoods market. This has helped explain the success in recent years of the energy bars and meal replacement category.

The past decade also brought increased interest in not only vegetarian but “flexitarian” lifestyles, the latter being where people choose to eliminate meat from some of their meals. As consumers increasingly opt to reduce their consumption of meat, the opportunities for meat alternatives will continue to expand.
Finally, the broader availability of meat-free products in the mainstream also will drive soyfoods sales. Large food companies have entered the soyfoods market and expanded the product lines available to consumers. Broader availability has made soyfoods more recognizable among consumers and led to increased sales. With these market trends in place, the soyfoods market should be able to hold its own in coming years.

Keeping Abreast of Soy Research
During the past 25 years, soyfoods have transitioned from foods that were relatively obscure to mainstream products especially attractive to health-conscious consumers—in spite of recent, occasional notes of confusion. Whereas in some categories soyfood sales have not done as well as anticipated, one thing is certain: As the Internet increasingly becomes the consumer medium of choice for obtaining information about diet and health, science can often take a back seat to hyperbole, especially in light of the fact that science, especially nutrition science, is not “black and white.”

The most confusing soy-related issue concerns breast cancer. Beginning in the early 1990s, there was considerable hope that traditional soyfoods, like tofu and miso, could reduce breast cancer risk. The low breast cancer rates in Japan, combined with some early animal studies, prompted the National Cancer Institute to investigate the proposed protective effects of soy. But, less than a decade later, one particular type of mouse experiment raised concerns that, at least for women with breast cancer, soyfoods might actually be harmful. At the same time, support for the hypothesis that healthy women could reduce their breast cancer risk by consuming soy waned. So where does this debate stand today?

In terms of prevention, the evidence increasingly suggests that although soy does protect against breast cancer, to derive this particular benefit requires consumption during childhood and/or adolescence. Although more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be reached, since studies indicate only modest amounts of soy (1 to 1½ servings per day) will do the trick, it seems reasonable to encourage young girls to consume at least some soy on a regular basis. At a minimum, it is a protein-rich food that is low in saturated fat.

There also is good news for breast cancer patients. Recent studies from China and the U.S. show that women who consume soy post-diagnosis actually have an improved prognosis, both in regard to recurrence and survival. The improved prognosis was observed in response to 1 to 2 servings of soyfoods per day and occurred in women with both estrogen-sensitive and estrogen-independent tumors.

Another confusing issue has to do with the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein. This attribute of soy really caught the public’s attention when, in 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for soyfoods and coronary heart disease. One year later, the endorsement of soyfoods by the American Heart Association (AHA) further helped spotlight soy. But, as with breast cancer, there was a turn of events: In 2006, the AHA reversed its position. Although they still endorsed soyfoods because of their low saturated fat content, they soured on the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein. However, the AHA didn’t actually conduct a formal statistical analysis of the data upon which they based their reversal. When this was done in 2010 by a Canadian research group, soy protein was shown to lower LDL cholesterol by a little over 4%. That estimate is in line with other recent estimates of 4-6%. Although that decrease is less than initially reported, it is still important.

Furthermore, recent work from the USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles suggests soy inhibits the progression of subclinical atherosclerosis. More specifically, a large three-year study found that, in young postmenopausal women, the consumption of soy protein dramatically reduced progression of carotid artery thickness. The benefits observed in this study are likely due to the uniquely rich phytoestrogen or isoflavone content of soyfoods.

The phytoestrogen content has made soy attractive to many females but might have turned off more than a few males. Tofu doesn’t exactly have the most masculine of images. But, there is really nothing very masculine about heart attacks or prostate cancer, for that matter. In regard to the latter, there is very intriguing evidence that soy reduces risk of this disease and could even be helpful to prostate cancer patients. However, what about feminizing concerns that seem to follow soy wherever it goes? Well, the evidence is reassuring. As long as one is not eating only soy, men need not worry that soyfoods will lower their sperm count or testosterone levels—or enlarge their breasts.

All and all, it seems prudent for Americans to view soy as one other protein-rich food to add to their diet. And, with the plethora of soyfoods available, doing so is pretty easy. Pf