Most UK consumers know soya as a bean used to make soy sauce; some may know it for those odd-tasting drinks that some ethnic groups prefer to milk; and others will know it as an unconvincing meat substitute. But these perceptions of soya could all be about to change. Not only have suppliers managed to substantiate some pretty weighty health claims for soya, they have also improved the flavour and texture, making it more palatable in a wider range of products. As a result, food producers are hoping their new soya launches will win a mainstream audience.
Astute consumers will know soya can be used as a protein replacement for processed meat, poultry and fish; as an ingredient in baked goods and snack bars; and in dairy-free beverages. The health-conscious consumer may also be aware that soya beans are a healthy option because they contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals, B-vitamins, folic acid, while being lactose and cholesterol-free.
However, we all know that consumers are not always good at eating the healthy stuff, so currently the European soya products market is regarded as niche, worth just euro 1.5bn. But within that niche there are some promising product categories.
Market researcher Mintel says the UK's soya-based dairy-free sector is now worth £68m and has a growth rate of 22% a year. This growth has been boosted by marketing activity around recent health claims for cholesterol reduction.
Back in 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed that "25 grams of soya protein per day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease". And a similar claim was approved by the UK's Joint Health Claims Initiative soon after.
Whether such claims can enable the category to maintain this double-digit growth is a matter for speculation. Mintel reported at the end of last year that US consumers may be losing their enthusiasm for soya. The market researcher says that following a 17% increase in sales of soya food and drink products between 2001 and 2002, sales slowed between 2003 and 2004 to a growth rate of just 6%.
It is still a growth rate that some UK companies would be pleased to be part of, however, and many see the UK's demographics and health concerns boosting that demand for soya-based products even further.
"The UK's wide ethnic mix and growing free-from market make it an ideal launch pad for soya products," says Lasco, one of the Caribbean's biggest food producers. The company, which already caters for its local, mainly lactose-intolerant population, has just set up a European subsidiary, Lasco Europe, with production facilities in Plymouth.
The UK's close links with the Caribbean, and its increasing focus on healthy eating and childhood obesity make it a natural market to target. As a result, Shaky drinks are the first in a raft of products that the new subsidiary plans to launch over the next year. The 250ml Tetra Pak soya drinks with added vitamins and calcium are available in vanilla, strawberry, banana and chocolate flavours. Targeted at children and retailing at 49p, they have already achieved an excellent reaction from education authorities, says Lasco and sales have begun in over 700 schools around the country.
A major hurdle to soya products going mainstream, however, is taste. Consumers brought up on dairy products have found the soya taste not to their liking. Not only does soya protein taste different to milk, it can have a rather unpleasant flavour described as "beany". Some soya drinks can also have a powdery mouthfeel.
As taste is the top criteria for purchase, the soya suppliers have had some work to do, but many believe they have now cracked it. International ingredients group Wild, for example, has developed a technique to remove the aftertaste from the beans, so it can combine the valuable ingredients from the whole bean with excellent flavour.
Peter Naylor, md of Wild UK, explains there are two main routes to soya processing: "One is taking the soya oil, which has been extracted from the bean after the husk has been removed, and producing a by-product known as soya protein isolate which a lot of companies buy in a powdered form. The other involves starting from the whole bean and processing them in such a way as to retain not only the vegetable protein but also all the valuable constituents, such as the polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins."
Wild does the latter. Matthias Sass, director of research and development at Wild, says: "The whole foodstuff is much more than only the combination of the different ingredients. It is very similar to [fruit juice in] the fruit juice industry. Nobody would try to exchange a fruit juice for a sugar solution, enriched with vitamins and minerals and some fibres. It doesn't work. The same goes for cow's milk. The reconstitution of whey protein and casein with milk fat is not the same as fresh milk."
Starting from the whole bean, the company has developed a liquid soya base for beverage production that manufacturers can use like a conventional fruit beverage base.
Encouraged by recent flavour improvements, a new collaboration between UK food and drink company Big Thoughts and other overseas investors, it is also looking to start producing mainstream soya products tasting "significantly better" than the competition, says director Chris Banks.
The newly formed company, Soya Magic, is spending £12m on having a new factory built on Grimsby's Europarc, where it will produce soya products. The company is also using "proprietary technology" to extract the milk, while retaining vitamins and minerals lost through traditional extraction methods.
"We believe this is a major improvement on previous production methods and that our plant will be the first of its kind in the UK," says Banks.
The factory is scheduled to come on stream in June 2005, and the company is currently developing products, starting with a range of alternatives to milk, that will be sold under the Soy Magic label.
With competition snapping at their heals, existing soya processors are striving to make their products more palatable to mainstream consumers. So Good, for example, has launched Soya Breakfast, a slightly sweeter creamier product than its SoyaLife, which is designed to be consumed with breakfast cereals. It has also created a range of soya-based frozen desserts. Alpro has also developed dairy-free alternatives to yoghurt.
The market is likely to see further product extensions: ranging from soups and salad dressings to dairy-free cheese.
The meat analogue sector is also raising its game. Last year ADM launched its NutriSoy Next range of meat alternatives, which are said to have a taste and whole muscle texture that broadens their appeal.
Not to be out-done, the bakery sector is coming up with concepts ranging from healthy soya-based bagged snacks to bread. Allied Bakeries, for example, has launched the soy-enriched loaf, Cholessterol, that promises to lower cholesterol and improve heart health.
The bread, under Allied's Burgen range, contains a patented soya composition called Abacor made by Norwegian firm Nutri Pharma. This blend of soy protein, fibre and phospholipids is twice as effective at lowering cholesterol as the best commercially available soya protein, says the manufacturer.
The company is also offering Burgen Soy & Linseed bread, which draws on two plant estrogens that are believed to be beneficial to women's health.
New health claims could also be on the horizon. In April 2004, soya ingredients supplier Solae (an alliance of DuPont and US seed grower Bunge) petitioned the US FDA with evidence that the consumption of soya protein-based foods helps to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
Other health benefits being investigated by soya suppliers include improved bone health, particularly for those with osteoporosis, and a reduction of female menopause symptoms. The Solae company is also currently conducting studies on the use of soya in weight management programmes.
Hubertus Devroye, Solae's marketing director for Europe, predicts that soya's "clear credible claims backed up with goods taste" will give rise to a new generation of "smart" foods.
Health is certainly an increasingly important driver for consumers, and the soya suppliers seem to have a bottomless purse when it comes to pushing through health claims research. However, some retailers are more reticent about promoting own-label products based on health claims.
At the recent Winning Ways to Healthier Food and Drink development conference, organised by Food Manufacture, one retailer said it didn't want to position food as medicine because consumers want to enjoy food.
But convincing consumers that this new generation of great tasting soya products can also be fun, may not be so difficult. And soya suppliers have another trump card yet to play -- they claim that soya protein is a more sustainable food than other proteins. But that's another argumentFM