Nearly three-quarters of consumers perceive soy foods as healthy, according to a recently completed survey by the United Soybean Board.

Results of the ninth annual check-off funded health and nutrition survey reveal an overall increase in consumer awareness, attitudes and perceptions of soy-based food products, the commodity board announced at a Sept. 19 press conference at the 2002 Soy Symposium in Chicago.

"Each year our committee conducts a survey of consumers to gauge the level of interest and acceptance of soy foods," says Janice Peterson, United Soybean Board domestic marketing chair and Indiana soybean producer. "As a soybean farmer, this survey gives me a good sense of how the soy foods sector will actually use those soybeans soon to be harvested,"

What the 2002 survey found was that most consumers are familiar with soy food products, and many have tried at least one soy food product. "Seventy-four percent of consumers surveyed recognize soy foods as healthy. This is not only an increase over last year's 69 percent, but I believe it's a very impressive number. In addition, the survey revealed that 41 percent of consumers know about specific health benefits of adding soy to their diets."

This growing trend largely occurred as a result of the 1999 soy protein health claim that soy may reduce the risk of heart disease, which resulted in-part from research funded by the farmer-driven soybean checkoff. Consumers are also increasingly aware of the health benefits soy can offer with regards to helping relieve the symptoms of menopause, preventing osteoporosis, and possible cancer prevention benefits.

"This is a natural progression following our successful effort to help secure the health claim for soy protein from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration," said Peterson. "We hope the soybean checkoff's Health Research Program leads to additional health claims for soy."

Linda Gilbert, president of HealthFocus International, a brand and business management firm targeting health and nutrition interests, says soy offers consumers a portfolio of health advantages. "The soybean industry is doing a good job polishing that halo of goodness, and it helps that more familiar and more convenient forms of soy are steadily coming into the marketplace."

The survey surveyed consumers about which soy food products they consume most often, and those products leading the list are soy milk and soy nuts.

Gilbert, who has been tracking the soy food market for more than 20 years, says, soy food products have evolved from something consumed as a substitute for another product to a stand-alone product.

"It used to be that consumers drank soy milk because they couldn't drink dairy milk, or they ate soy burgers in order to reduce the meat in their diet. More recently, however, we've seen people attracted to soy because of the positive health benefits soy products can provide.

In 2001, sales of soy food products grew 17 percent, according to Peter Goblitz, president of SoyaTech, an oilseeds research and publishing firm.

"Over the past few years the industry has grown by more than 14 percent each year. We're looking at a constant continual growth, and we're seeing a blurring of distinction between a soy food and a food with soy in it," he says. "We're expecting the industry to continue to grow in double-digit rates, though the rate of growth may slow slightly. Currently, soy is growing about as fast as a food category can."

There were 2,300 soy products available in the marketplace in 2001, and the long-term outlook remains strong.

What the health claim has done, Goblitz says, is motivate companies that previously had not thought of putting soy protein in their products to do so. Now, consumers are looking for products that contain soy, and it's an excellent functional food ingredient because it can be delivered in many forms to food processors. "Any food system looking to add soy to its ingredients can do that," Goblitz says.

Peterson says the soybean checkoff program has recently prepared very aggressive plans to increase the utilization of U.S. soybeans by expanding the market for soy foods.

"By the year 2005, it is our goal to have 1.75 billion bushels of U.S. soybeans utilized in our domestic markets. I know it's a challenge, but we know that we want the soy food market to grow and we believe that it will," Peterson says.

To accomplish that goal, the United Soybean is reaching out to food editors, dieticians, and others in the food service industry. The commodity board is also continuing to invest in soy related health research.

The United Soybean Board consists of 62 farmer-directors for 29 major soy-producing states.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.