The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has closed its public comment period and is one step closer to signing off on a new health claim that links soy protein to a reduced risk of heart disease.

That approval could eventually lead to a dramatic increase in demand for soybeans.

If approved, the claim - based on more than 50 scientific studies - will be printed on food labels and promotional materials. It will appear on soyfoods such as regular and seasoned tofu, soy-based beverages, burgers, hot dogs and deli slices enhanced with soy protein, frozen desserts, energy protein bars, cheese and yogurt alternatives.

"Allowing manufacturers to include this health claim on food product labels will open major market opportunities for U.S. soybean producers, enhancing demand and soybean prices," says Mike Yost, a farmer from Murdock, MN, and president of the American Soybean Association (ASA).

The FDA claim says that 25 grams of soy protein included in a daily diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of Americans.

"The soybean checkoff helped generate the research and information that was submitted to the FDA," explains United Soybean Board (USB) domestic marketing chair David Durham, a Hardin, MO, farmer.

The process began in 1995 with help from the Illinois Soybean Checkoff Board and USB. The total amount invested in the project from soybean checkoff funds ran about $1 million.

ASA predicts that, if 54.2 million Americans with high blood cholesterol each consumed 25 grams (less than 1 oz) of soy protein each day, annual demand for soybeans would increase by more than 55.2 million bushels.Put another way, if all 271 million Americans each consumed 25 grams of soy protein every day, that figure would be five times higher and show an increase in soybean demand of more than 276 million bushels annually, says Marc Curtis, ASA's public affairs committee chair.

"At a time when prices paid to farmers are low, and many farmers are concerned about the future of farming, we believe the soy protein health claim will result in a significant growth in demand for soybeans," Curtis says.

Currently, consumption of U.S. soybeans here at home totals about 1.2 billion bushels a year.

The soybean checkoff's goal is to increase domestic consumption to 1.5 billion bushels annually by 2005, says Byron Lemoine, a Hamburg, LA, farmer and former chairman of USB.

A coalition to develop the soy health claim involved ASA, USB, state checkoff boards and industry partners, such as Protein Technologies International, Central Soya and the Archer Daniels Midland Company.