Consumer knowledge and awareness of soy has grown continuously in recent years, and according to the United Soybean Board’s "Consumer Attitudes About Nutrition" 2008 survey, 85% of consumers rate soy products as healthy. As recently as 2001, the figure was as low as 69%. Overall, this perception has increased by 26 percentage points during the past 11 years.

In addition, 35% of consumers specifically seek products containing soy for health reasons, and 34% of consumers said they are aware of the Food and Drug Administration approved claim that consuming 25 grams of soy protein per day reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.

So what does the increased awareness mean for the market?

The market for foods containing soy has been growing steadily with renewed emphasis on meat alternatives and dairy-free beverages. The Soyfoods Association of North America said during the 15 years between 1992 and 2007, sales in the soyfood market increased from $300 million a year to almost $4 billion. The increase is a result of new soyfood categories being introduced, soy products being repositioned, and new customers seeking soy for health and philosophical reasons.

Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association, said other specific market drivers include the heart-health claim, sustainability and cost.

According to Mintel International’s Global New Products Database, many of the recently introduced soy products are soy milks, frozen desserts, ice cream or yogurt. Soy-based drinks account for a more significant number of new products than soy based frozen foods or soy yogurt.

"Soymilk continues to be a choice many consumers are moving toward," Ms. Chapman said. "Often it’s consumers who haven’t drunk milk in a long time. They want to have a healthy product that is easy to use."

Ms. Chapman noted many meat alternatives are coming onto the market as a part of frozen entrees.

"That frozen, pre-packaged very convenient item that was really dominated by animal products now has a number of soy-based meat alternatives incorporated into those easy and convenient foods," Ms. Chapman said.

Energy bars are another avenue of growth for soy products with SoyJoy, Pharmavite, Northridge, Calif., being a leader in the category. In addition, most products from Clif Bar, Berkeley, Calif., contain soy as well.

There have been challenges for continued growth of soy products, though. According to Mintel, the sale of soy-based energy bars declined 17% from 2002 to 2007 and soy-based energy bars are losing share to breakfast, cereal and snack bars. In addition, Mintel said soy-based meat substitutes declined 15% during the same period after adjustments for inflation. In addition, losses from Gardenburger, which was eventually acquired by The Kellogg Co., presented challenges to expansion of the category as well.

"One of the largest road blocks to growth in the soy-based food market is soy’s taste — it needs to be as good as or better than the products that it aims to replace," Mintel said. "Additionally, most soy-based foods are available in pre-seasoned and pre-formed food choices — burgers, sausage links, nuggets, hot dogs — limiting its adaptability for a greater variety of meal applications."

Ms. Chapman said there has been progress in the area of adaptability.

"Tofu that used to be a block — very difficult to know what to do with — is now pre-cut, pre-cooked and pre-flavored," Ms. Chapman said.

In terms of making progress with taste, The Solae Co., St. Louis, and Senomyx, Inc., San Diego, have found the compound of soy protein that is responsible for bitterness, have identified the bitter taste receptors activated by these components and discovered potential new ingredients to enhance the taste of soy proteins. The companies first entered into an agreement for research and development in this area in April 2007.

The Beverage Marketing Corp., New York, noted in its "2008 Soy Beverage in the U.S." report that it is generally agreed by flavor scientists "brown" flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon and peanut butter are good at hiding the beany flavor of soy.

Ms. Chapman said products such as energy bars, smoothies and pre-packaged convenience meals have been successful with soy varieties because they all clearly meet a need and future innovation will look at other areas with specific needs.

"I think the innovation is going to continue looking at what kinds of foods customers want and beginning to see that you get far more value making them for soy than you might for an animal product," Ms. Chapman said.

According to The Nielsen Co., New York, total sales of foods and beverages with soy claims on the package label in channels excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. for the year ended Sept. 6 were $1,950,010,807, down 1% from the previous year. In this category, dairy was the largest sector with $565,609,396 in sales, up 7% from the previous year.

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