Last year, food industry giants including McDonald's, Kraft, Frito Lay and Kellogg's announced they would strive to offer healthier foods.

Driven by the demands of health-conscious consumers, these and other companies are seeking food ingredients that provide health benefits — and soy is offering solutions.

Now, soy-enriched smoothies, deli slices, cheese, milk, beverages and meat alternatives are moving mainstream into the already $3.65 billion soyfood industry.

According to a survey conducted on SupermarketGuru.com, soyfoods are eaten most frequently at breakfast and dinner and include soymilk (58%), soy burgers or crumbles (43%) and tofu entrees (32%).

“The trend toward mainstream growth has been consistent over the past five years,” says Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, Inc., a market research firm that tracks soyfood product sales. Experts like Golbitz expect that trend to continue because soyfoods fit the niche health-conscious consumers seek — foods with nutritional benefits that are convenient and taste great.

RETAIL ACCEPTANCE

Soyfoods are already making a strong showing on retail supermarket shelves — and consumers are buying.

According to a 2003 survey of 1,000 consumers from the United Soybean Board (USB), one of every six shoppers selects a food because it contains soy. Nearly three-fourths of American consumers say soy products are healthy.

Soy protein energy bars and beverages represent the fastest-growing soyfood segments. Sales of soy beverages skyrocketed to $600 million in the U.S. in 2002 and are expected to hit the $1 billion mark by 2005.

Tropicana, which is owned by Pepsi, has introduced a cultured soy drink that is becoming popular in the market. Snapple A Day and Coca Cola also have both announced ventures to offer soymilk and other soy protein beverages.

One new soy beverage, Soy Fantastico, has even been created to target the rapidly growing Hispanic market, which includes a large percentage of people who are lactose-intolerant to some degree. The new beverage will be available in strawberry, vanilla or chocolate, with Spanish/English labeling.

Even soy desserts are entering the food market. Lulu's Dessert Corporation began marketing a soy gelatin last spring. Soy milk has been popular in frozen sandwiches and chocolate covered frozen bars, too, says Nancy Chapman, Soyfoods Association of North America executive director.

More opportunities are about to boom for soy protein-enriched foods. Technology is being developed to provide higher soy content in several foods, including snack foods.

“New soy flours are also entering the market that don't transfer a traditional soy flavor to bread or other baked goods,” Chapman adds.

FOOD SERVICE FOLLOWING

But the growing soyfood trend is burgeoning beyond supermarket shelves. At least 50% of consumer spending on food is now being spent outside the home. So soyfood products have much to gain by moving into food service channels such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Subway, says Soyatech's Golbitz. He points out that all of these chains have been introducing veggie-based alternatives.

Chapman predicts that the greatest growth and market opportunity for soy is still to come in elementary, high school and university food service sectors, where millions of students are fed daily. She says that, with many students choosing plant-based diets, educational institutions will seek more soymilk, soy meat alternatives and soy-meat blended products for their menus.