Commodity soybeans aren't left out of the soyfoods surge

Soyfood sales in the U.S. are expected to top $2.5 billion by year's end and continue climbing a whopping 15-20% over the next five years.

Naturally, that's good news for growers of specialty soybeans. But it will also benefit commodity bean growers.

"When you look at the soyfood market, there's what I call the `premium market' (specialty beans) and then there's a more general market (commodity soybeans)," says Walt Fehr, Iowa State University agronomist. "There's still a demand for commodity soybeans for some food products."

Soybean oil is the biggest of those products. Each year, about 85% of the world's soybeans are crushed to produce meal and oil. Nearly all of the resulting soybean oil is used for human consumption. Worldwide, soy oil is the most widely used edible oil; and in the U.S. it accounts for about 80% of the edible oil consumed.

"Many commodity beans go into vegetable oils, but also into soy protein concentrates, soy protein isolates, soy flour, soy beverage - they can go anywhere," says Anne Patterson, a nutrition consultant from Farmington, IL.

Food processors who want low-cost soybeans use commodity beans, adds Fehr. But, in some cases, not all commodity beans are acceptable. For example, Japanese food processors until recently bought significant quantities of what they call IOM (Indiana, Ohio, Michigan) soybeans. These are commodity soybeans that the Japanese feel have higher protein content and are more suitable for food uses than commodity beans grown elsewhere in the U.S.

Due to biotech issues, IOM beans have lost considerable market share to other sources, Fehr says.

"Some of those sources are non-GMO (genetically modified organism) commodity beans that have been identity-preserved," he notes. "It's not that commodity beans are gone from the business; it's more that it has shifted to identity preservation."

The premium food-grade soybean market includes a whole range of specialty, food-grade types, says Fehr, who has helped develop several specialty beans, including low-saturated-fat soybeans.

"You have small-seeded types for natto and sprouts; large-seeded soybeans for edamame, miso and tofu. Then you have large-seeded, high-protein types; lipoxygenase-free types; high-sucrose; low-saturated fat; low-linoleic - all of them have special traits for some food use."

Current specialty soybean varieties present limitations and drawbacks to both the producer and the processor, says Joel Rabbe, producer and president of North Country Seed, Ormsby, MN. Rabbe, whose company contracts largely for food-grade or specialty soybean varieties, says the lack of disease resistance is one high-ranking hindrance for growers.

"One big advantage of commodity beans, in production, is that you have a wider choice of varieties," Fehr says. "When you get into a specialty food-grade bean, often - not always - the seed is larger than normal. That means you have to take special care planting and harvesting it. Specialty food grades require more care overall, especially with respect to identity preservation and quality of the harvested crop."

Commodity varieties also offer higher yields.

"Specialty types routinely don't yield as well, so processors are always going to try to use commodity beans if they can," says Fehr. "It's a very product-by-product, manufacturer-by- manufacturer issue," he adds. "Whether food processors want a very specific soybean or not is going to depend on what works in their products."

Two major types of soybeans are grown in the U.S. - oil beans and food beans, also called specialty or identity-preserved soybeans.

Growers know a lot about No. 2 yellow beans. They're crushed for oil, used mainly for human consumption, and meal. Meal is largely used as animal feed, with a small portion as soy protein ingredients in almost every food category.

But what are specialty beans? Here's how the Indiana Soybean Board, with help from Keshun Liu, senior food scientist at Monsanto, explains them on its Web site (www.indianasoybeanboard.com).

Food beans have been selected and bred over the past several decades for processing into soyfoods for human use. They usually carry a premium price in the market. The tradeoff? Lower yield or other undesirable agronomic characteristics that can make the beans more challenging to grow.

Food beans are classed into tofu beans, natto beans, sprout beans and green vegetable soybeans. Most often, these beans are extra clean, with a superior seed quality of U.S. Grade 1 or higher.

Besides tofu, tofu beans can be used in soymilk. They're higher in protein content (40% or higher, dry matter basis) and lower in oil count. Most have medium-to-large seed size, but large-seeded beans are preferred because they are visually appealing and have less hull in proportion to the whole soybean weight.

Appearance is everything. Most tofu beans have a clear hilum, a light yellow to yellow seed coat and light yellow cotyledons that result in a whiter soymilk or tofu product - important to consumers.

In contrast, manufacturers of natto, an ethnic Japanese food of fermented whole soybeans, prefer small to extra small natto soybeans, which offer better fermentation.

Medium-size soybeans with high germination rates are preferred for sprout production.

The green, immature vegetable soybeans, known as edamame, have large-size beans, clear hilums and thin seed coats. These specialty beans also have high contents of sugar and free amino acids, and a tender texture.

Mature soybeans eaten either in a cooked form or as roasted soynuts require the same characteristics as those for the green vegetable beans.

Other types of specialty soybeans include:

- High sucrose: These beans, with a higher sucrose content than that of normal soybeans, are used to improve food product flavor.

- High oleic: The oleic acid content in the oil of these beans is 80% compared to 24% in regular soybean oil. Since a high oleic soybean contains less polyunsaturated fat, its oil is more heat stable without hydrogenation than regular soy oil. It's used for "healthier" food products.

- High stearate: This soybean's oil has about 15% stearate or higher, while regular soybean oil has about 4%. Oil from these beans doesn't need hydrogenation and doesn't contain transfatty acid. It's used for "healthier" margarine and shortening in frying and baking.

- Low linolenic: Beans of this type have half the linolenic acid - 3.5% - of regular soybeans, which increases the soybean oil's stability.

- Low saturate: The oil from these beans has less palmitic acid than a regular bean oil's 11%. The resulting oil contains less saturated fat and is healthier. It's used for cooling oil and salad dressings.