Consumers are increasingly aware of the health benefits of soybeans, and more of them are choosing to incorporate soy in their diets, a study by an independent research group found.

The recently completed annual survey, which is funded by the soybean checkoff, found that 76 percent of American consumers consider soy products to be healthy, up from 71 percent last year.

Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents are aware of soy's specific health benefits, including lowering cholesterol, high fiber/digestive benefits, and a source for increasing energy and relief of menopausal symptoms.

The survey also found that, since the inception of a health claim for soy protein in October 1999, 35 percent more Americans are aware that consuming 25 grams of soy protein per day reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. And, for the second year in a row, consumers consider soybean oil to be the healthiest of all cooking oils.

"Consumers are taking advantage of the health benefits from soy. And the checkoff continues to find new ways for Americans to consume soy products," says Kent Gronlie, North Dakota soybean farmer and chair of the United Soybean Board (USB) Edible Products Subcommittee. "Increased consumption is a win-win situation. Consumers are getting a health benefit, and farmers are expanding the market for soy products. With the size of this year's crop, that is extremely important."

The number of Americans altering their eating habits to include soy products one or more times each week is growing - 27 percent in 2000, the survey found. Consumers are most aware of tofu, soy veggie burgers and soy beverages. Consumers are also familiar with soybean oil, soy infant formula, soy protein bars and other soy supplements.

At the checkoff-funded Soy Symposium held recently in Chicago, industry experts predicted soyfood consumption will continue to rise.

"Knowing consumers want to eat more soy makes it an exciting time to be a soybean farmer," says Gronlie. "We need to take advantage of every opportunity to expand utilization of U.S. soybeans."

A recent survey conducted by Prevention magazine shows that consumers' desire for soyfoods has doubled in the last year. The 1999 survey found one out of six said they wanted soyfoods to be offered at social functions. In 2000, the figure was one out of three. "American consumers are ready to start eating more soy products," says Holly McCord, editor of Prevention magazine.

"If you look at the number of soy products on grocery store shelves this year compared with years past, you will notice an increase in the number of soy products available," says USB Chief Executive Officer John Becherer.

Becherer says the noticeable difference is partially a result of checkoff-supported programs promoting research into health benefits from soy consumption.

The United Soybean Board is pursuing additional scientific research into whether human soy consumption may be able to help prevent prostate cancer and osteoporosis. "This is a great example of how our checkoff dollars are hard at work to help boost consumer confidence and interest in consuming more soy," says Gronlie.

The United Soybean Board's new domestic marketing goal is to increase consumption of soybeans from 1.2 billion bushels to in excess of 1.75 billion bushels by 2005. One means of reaching this goal is to increase the edible consumption of soybeans. And Americans are responding by incorporating more soy into their daily diets.

A checkoff-funded study conducted last year shows that Americans consumed the equivalent of 37 million bushels of soybeans by eating soyfoods. The United Soybean Board expects that figure to rise to 66 million bushels by 2005 and 100 million by 2010.