Henry Ford made a car from it. It's used for building materials and biofuel. And it tastes like grass. Yet it seems we in the West cannot eat enough of it.
Soya, or 'Ta Teou', the 'Big Bean' as it was called in China when it was first grown as a crop some 5,000 years ago, is today a food staple throughout eastern Asia.
Now western consumers are discovering soya as a health food in its own right and not just as a veggie alternative to meat and milk. With multinational food companies like Unilever, Danone, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Alpro entering the market, soya, or soy as it is more usually called, has finally gone mainstream in Europe. Sales of soy drinks and desserts saw double digit growth in 2006, hitting €570M.
According to Gerard Klein Essink, md of Prosoy, the soy research and strategy consultancy based in The Netherlands, the growth area for soy products in Europe is consumers who see soy as a healthy alternative to meat and dairy products. "People are looking for an alternative to meat or dairy products and soy is perceived as a healthy option." Essink organised the two-day Prosoy Dairy-Free Conference in London at the beginning of November which featured 15 speakers from 11 countries all promoting the benefits of soy.
But the market for soy is also being driven by recent increases in milk prices, says Essink. Prices of basic dairy commodities such as non-fat dry milk, whole milk powder and casein have more than doubled in the past two years. "Companies are looking for an alternative protein source to cut costs or prevent products from getting too expensive," he says. "So there is a lot of interest in the food industry to come up with a good soy-based alternative to milk powder." One of soy's main selling points is its high protein content at around 40%.
But despite the booming demand for soy products, Essink dismisses fears over rising raw material costs and supply shortages. "Only about 1% of the total world production of soy goes for food manufacture. The other 99% goes into the animal feed market. So there's no sourcing problem."
But soy prices have increased over the past 18 months, mainly because of the increase in the use of soy for biofuel production in the US and because many soy farmers are switching to other crops like corn for biofuel, says Essink. That has affected the price of all agricultural products. "However, dairy prices have increased much faster, so soy is still going to be cheaper than dairy."
What is more of an issue, though, says Essink, is the question of sustainability. Worldwide, the acreage devoted to soy is increasing, particularly in Brazil. The US is still the leading soy exporter, shipping 30Mt in 2006, but Brazil is close to taking over the number one spot, having exported 25.8Mt in 2006. "But people don't want to see the rain forest chopped down to grow more soy," says Essink.
So there is now a global initiative called the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS). It held its first general assembly in Sao Paulo in Brazil in May this year and its first job is to develop global criteria for the production, processing and trade of soy in a responsible manner within the next 18 months. This is being done by UK consultancy ProForest.
Essink doesn't see the issue of genetically modified (GM) soy as a particularly hot topic for European consumers. The supermarkets and soy food producers have simply avoided any adverse consumer reaction by removing GM soy from their products, he says. "Most of the products you find on the supermarket shelf have not been made from GM soy, so it is not an issue."
A QUESTION of taste
But the real issue with soy is its taste. Die-hard soy fans will tell you that they like the grassy, wheaty taste of crushed soy beans. But for most consumers, soy needs flavouring to mask its underlying taste and astringency.
Mastertaste, the global flavours business of Kerry Group, launched a new range of soy masking flavours at the Prosoy Dairy-Free conference in London. Historically, soy drinks and desserts have generally been flavoured with chocolate or vanilla, says Andrea Cavalleo, soy flavour specialist with Mastertaste in Turin. "But if you want to appeal to the dairy consumer you have to add notes typical of cows' milk. People are looking more and more for natural flavours in soy."
Its new flavours can be used in all sweet soy-based applications, says Mastertaste, from drinks to ice-creams.
Eric Linn is marketing manager Europe for food at soy ingredients company Solae, the US-based alliance between DuPont and Bunge. He says the market for soy products has shifted. They are no longer just for vegetarians and those with lactose intolerance problems.
"Today, we are seeing more people with families looking to replace maybe one meat meal a week with a vegetarian meal and they are doing it for health reasons - whereas 20 years ago soy consumers were die-hard vegetarians and tree huggers."
There are two approaches to using soy, says Linn. You can use the whole bean or, as Solae does, isolate the protein. "It's pretty tasteless, which means it is a lot easier to use in flavoured products because the flavour will cover the tartness of the soy.
"Soy is a wonderful ingredient. It is so functional and versatile. The only limitation is that it doesn't work well in high heat applications. It doesn't like acid either. So a soy coffee creamer is a very difficult application for us."
And there can be problems with solubility. Also, the viscosity of soy protein is often higher than that of milk protein, which can affect texture. But many of these problems can be resolved by using soy protein isolates.
Linn also doesn't see any problems with sourcing sufficient quantities of non-GM soybeans, even though the vast majority of soy is grown for cattle feed and the majority of that is GM.
"There are new plantations of non-GM soy every year. Italy, France and Germany are all now producing non-GM soy. In fact it is getting easier to source non-GM soy."
And despite recent rises in soy prices, Linn is not worried. "At the moment most of our cost increases are not coming from the raw material itself but from the cost of the energy we use to process it."
But Linn does see a possible issue with organic soy. "Today, the total production of organic soy is probably less than 1% of total soy production, so it is very hard to come by. And that is why you don't see a lot of organic soy on the market."
Solae also used the Prosoy Dairy-Free conference to launch two new soy-based ingredients to enable food companies to replace costly dairy counterparts without affecting taste. Announcing the new products, Solae director of global strategy Will Black, said: "The current market conditions are causing renewed interest in soy protein for its economic advantages, including supply stability and price predictability, versus dairy proteins." Supro Plus 9000 and Supro Plus 9040 are designed as replacements for non-fat milk and whole milk powder respectively.
John Allaway, commercial director at Alpro Soya, the Belgium-based 100% natural soy products company, also sees the market for soy products developing beyond consumers who are dairy intolerant.
"Greater consumer understanding of the health benefits of soya, significant improvements in both the flavour and range of products, and marketing which positions soya as a mainstream lifestyle choice, are all contributing to strong growth," he says.
Soy products have come a long way in the last few years and now closely resemble their dairy counterparts in terms of taste and appearance, he adds.
Allaway dismisses fears over some studies that have linked consumption of soy to infertility in women and breast cancer.
He points to current UK Food Standards Agency advice, which states: "Pregnant women don't need to avoid soya products if they're eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet. Some people have raised concerns that pregnant women who eat soya might affect the future fertility of their babies. However, these concerns are based on studies in rats and mice, and it's difficult to assess what the results mean for humans. There haven't been any reports of problems in countries such as Japan and China, where the traditional diet includes soya."
As for breast cancer, Allaway says evidence shows that consumption of soy may be associated with a lower risk of certain cancers, including breast cancers, in Asian Countries. However, he acknowledges that the oestrogen-like effects of isoflavones present in soy have raised concerns that soy might actually increase breast cancer risk in susceptible individuals. "Overall, there is no clear indication that consumption of soya food is not acceptable in those at risk of breast cancer or with breast cancer."