It's tipped as the wonder food of the 21st century. A cheap bean that can feed the world, take the pressure off the planet for expensively reared meat, and even lower blood cholesterol. Soya pushes all the right buttons, economically, nutritionally, and - with the exception of some high profile and universally condemned forest stripping in south America - environmentally.
So why did the British Soya Protein Association (SPA) and the European Natural Soy Association spend much of the summer fighting a rear guard action against a hostile media?
"Soya has set itself up for a number of falls over recent years," says Nigel Duffin, a soya nutrition expert with leading UK-based beverage company So Good. "Some of the health claims around soya have been overstated - some of the negatives have certainly been."
The most recent, involving a bizarre story of parrots falling off their perch, which fuelled dark suspicions that a politically motivated anti-soy - for which read anti-US - lobby was at work, prompted an 11-page, detailed rebuttal from the industry, but so far the only commercial impact has been a whopping PR bill to reassure a largely unfazed public.
That's not to say that when the media dirt flies again - as it inevitably will - tofu won't come unstuck, which is why many now welcome EU moves to legitimise claims made for the magic bean under upcoming health and nutrition labelling laws.
"There are one or two issues, which, we accept, need looking at in more detail; particularly soya's effect on [the] thyroid and the impact it might have on certain segments of the population," says Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the SPA, which is backing a major review of recent scientific literature to be published this autumn. "But it's still the best form of vegetable protein."
Nutritionist Dr Janice Harland, a specialist in functional foods who helped put together the UK's existing soya health claim under the Joint Health Claims Initiative, points out that evidence supporting its oft-quoted role in preventing cancer and bringing menopausal relief, is somewhat sketchy. However, she remains hopeful that Europe will accept evidence of soya's cholesterol lowering power, which researchers now agree rests somewhere between 3% and 5% in healthy adults.
Although not as high as previously touted, Harland points out that it still translates into a significant 10% reduction in heart disease, which means manufacturers are likely to enjoy basking in the warm glow of government-backed support for soya for some years to come.
Overall, the bean's credentials are good, and its popularity with manufacturers growing.
You only have to look at recent activity in the market to see where the smart money's going. "There have been a lot of acquisitions and changes in recent years - Heinz buying the Linda McCartney brand [recently sold to Hain Celestial] and Premier buying Cauldron Foods. The meat-free market has grown rapidly and the products are getting better and more convenient, particularly in chilled," says the SPA's Dyer.
While as a category in their own right, soya foods remain relatively small fry in the UK, at £250-£330M, as an ingredient, soya has reached far beyond its traditional hippy heartland.
"There are literally thousands and thousands of products with soya in them," says David Jago of market watcher Mintel. "In some categories its popularity is down to process capabilities, but generally speaking it's pretty cheap."
World consumption of soya oil stood at 34Mt last year and 146Mt of meal. Volumes this year are expected to increase by 6Mt as producers meet rising demand from both the livestock feed and food processing industries, particularly in the middle and far east where per capita consumption of meat and processed foods is growing fast.
Ironically, while its popularity in exotic markets is due almost entirely to the cost efficiencies that soya can bring to the manufacture of everything from nachos to noodles, in the west, soya is entering a virtuous new era in which it can bestow a premium on products as diverse as low fat burgers and dairy-free shots.
"Soya will be used more and more as a healthy ingredient to include in dairy products, like Danone has done [with soy enriched dairy yoghurt]," predicts Gerard Klein Essink, md of Dutch-based analyst Prosoy.
"The dairy industry is not so much looking at soy as a competitor, but as a functional ingredient." Current research even includes removing lactose from milk and replacing it with soya.
Essink, who heads up a Dutch government-funded research project which is looking at expanding the use of soya products in foodservice, welcomes the idea of big brands, such as Unilever with its new soy-enriched fruit juice AdeZ, joining the bean feast. "By increasing consumer awareness, there will be more research and development," he says.
Mintel's Jago agrees. "For a long time soya-based beverages in the UK have been the exclusive preserve of the specialist companies. Unilever is the first really big brand with the international reach and economies of scale. It's been seeing the level of growth [in soya beverages] and licking its lips."
In the US Solae, one of the world's leading suppliers of soy isolates, is also looking for a slice of the 'meat reducers' market - said to include as many as half of all UK shoppers - by helping manufacturers develop hybrid meat and soya products using a process called SolaCine.
"It's essentially a mix of vegetable protein - mainly soya-based, but not entirely, and real meat," says Solae's Andy Shea. "How much meat you use and how much of the vegetable protein blend is entirely up to what the customer is looking to do with the product."
Using a 50:50 meat/vegetable protein mix, Solae claims to be able to reduce the saturated fat content of a typical American quarter-pounder by half and calorie content by two thirds.
And while anybody can bulk up a burger, Solae says that what's different about this process is the way it mimics the textural characteristics of whole muscle meat.
Most of the interest so far has come from chilled manufacturers, but the company has also developed shelf-stable products and claims to be assisting manufacturers in product development around the world.
But Mintel's Jago counsels caution before jumping on this particular soy-cart. "It's a good market to go after in principle, but if people are avoiding meat, they are more likely to cut it out ... and eat it twice a week instead of four times. Mixing the two together doesn't make a lot of sense to me - to be honest, that's a very American approach."
Where he does see a window of opportunity is in the snack sector.
"The only thing that will hold soya back is categories that are well developed in the US and not particularly well developed here, like snack bars. If you look at the US, the market for soya bars is more developed than drinks - and there are a lot of big guys doing them as well. The bars market is growing in the UK, but European consumers tend to go for beverages - and that's the route that's seen as convenient."
Heart of the matter
Experts agree that more work is needed to establish soya's effect on key areas of human health, such as cancer and bone disease, but the one area where there's little dissent is over its ability to lower blood cholesterol - the argument is simply by how much.
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association revised its view, saying that eating 25g of soya protein a day would reduce LDL or bad cholesterol by between 3% and 5% - significantly less than previously thought.
Far from undermining soya's healthy heart claims, nutritionist Dr Janice Harland says the latest evidence endorses the UK's position.
"The original American claim was based on a study which included people with high levels of cholesterol that would justify medical intervention. With soya protein, the higher the level of cholesterol, the bigger the drop. If you look at more recent analysis, they tend to be in the range of 3-5%."
The Americans, she said, were looking for a quick win. "The approach in the UK has been if you use a combination of dietary means to reduce cholesterol, you can achieve a lot. In the States, they tend to throw statins at it.
"There is a lot of evidence with regard to cholesterol reduction. I think with the other areas in the main we need more information." FM