Soy-based foods have made the move from the niche markets of specialty food stores to the grocery stores where the consumer masses shop each week. And, although soy foods aren't yet sold alongside Frito-Lay chips or Planters peanuts at Yankee Stadium, the folks at the United Soybean Board think that day is coming.

“The branding of soy has not yet moved into the mass marketplace, but we think that can happen,” says Geri Berdak, a nutritionist and United Soybean Board director of edible programs.

Because more soybeans than ever before are moving into the soy food sector of the industry, the soybean check-off program is funding an annual Consumer Health Tracking Study. Now in its seventh year, the study surveys a cross-section of 800 consumers, ages 18 to 60, to monitor any changes in their opinions about soy foods, grocery purchasing habits and nutrition in general.

“We have a good crop on our hands, and USDA says we'll have another record crop this year. Knowing that we will likely harvest another record soybean crop, we need to be sure to do all we can to find a home for these billions of bushels of soybeans,” says Greg Anderson, a soybean farmer from Newman Grove, Neb., who spoke Sept. 27 at the 2001 Soy Symposium in Chicago.

Anderson, who serves as the vice chairman of the United Soybean Board's communication committee, says increasing consumption of edible soy is one important way the soybean check-off program can help find a home for the 2001 soybean crop.

Currently, the edible soy market utilizes 44 million bushels of domestically produced soybeans annually, and Anderson says it is one of the fastest-growing markets for U.S. soybeans.

Results from the latest consumer survey show that 39 percent of consumers are aware of the specific health benefits of including soy in their diet.

Even better news from the survey, Anderson says, is that 42 percent of consumers are aware that soy can lower cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of heart disease. That's almost double the number that reported they were aware of that specific health benefit in 1999. That year the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved a soy health claim that states consuming 25 grams of soy protein a day may help reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association is now recommending eating soy along with a diet low in saturated fat, to help reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Overall, 69 percent of consumers consider soy products to be healthy. Consumers also believe soy is a good a source of energy, possesses high-fiber/digestive benefits and provides menopausal symptom relief.

In addition, 25 percent of consumers now reportedly include soy products at least once per week in their diets, with soy burgers, soy beverages and tofu leading the list of choices.

Americans are also changing their eating habits to include more soy. The study revealed nearly 90 percent of consumers are at least somewhat concerned about the nutritional content of the food they eat, and 72 percent have in fact changed their eating habits because of health and nutrition concerns. This is evident with the increase in the amount of soybeans utilized in soy food products, the United Soybean Board says.

Diana Holman, an expert on behavior patterns on the future of food and the keynote speaker at the 2001 Soy Symposium held Sept. 27-28 in Chicago, says, “When we look at the subject of food we cannot look at it out of context. Typically female consumers make 80 percent of all purchasing decisions and their health mindset is very key when making these decisions.”

The wellness platform, she says, is a much bigger concept than just nutrition. “We have to remember that this is a very volatile time with the economy in a fairly unstable mode and consumers are re-centering their lives. They have a realism about the products they select and will seek those products that are known to be beneficial. There is no questions that soybean products will meet that priority.”

“The edible-soy sector is one of the fastest-growing markets for our soybeans,” says Anderson. “This consumer survey conducted by the soybean check-off each year helps promote edible soy and increase domestic soy utilization by better understanding consumer trends.”

In addition to funding the consumer trend study and other soybean promotion projects, the United Soybean Board has begun investing in a chef education program to better incorporate soy foods on restaurant menus. “We certainly see this as an opportunity for further soy market development,” says Berdak.

The United Soybean Board says its promotion strategy is to target key influencers including food manufacturers, chefs and dieticians. And because science is the basis for any good marketing strategy, according to Berdak, the USB is investing millions into medical research, including more than $1 million in the heart health claim alone.

More specifically, the soybean promotion group is targeting medical health researchers and then providing them with $10,000 grants to investigate the relationship between soybean food products and health claims.

According to the United Soybean Board, the soybean check-off is working to increase domestic soy utilization to 1.75 billion bushels and overall global utilization of U.S. soybeans to 3 billion bushels by 2005.

In 2000, 1.6 billion bushels of U.S. soybeans were used domestically in products such as soy foods, animal protein feeds and bodiless. Of that total, approximately 44 million bushels of soybeans were consumed in soy food products. The United Soybean Board estimates that total could reach nearly 100 million bushels by 2010.

For more information about either the health benefits of soy or the consumer survey, you can visit the Website, www.talksoy.com.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com