Soy Power

The protein of choice.  Featured in our July 2018 magazine.

Look in the shopping cart or at the restaurant plate of today’s consumers. You’re likely to find more plant-based, protein-rich foods that promote health and make eating an experience. When consumers learn those foods fit their definition of sustainable production, even better.

While this is a shift from the meat-and-potatoes generation, soy is still part of the food equation. In fact, today’s food trends may open new doors for soybeans, if farmers play their cards right. “Clean eating with all natural, recognizable ingredients and accountability of farmers is becoming more important. Soy is a star among the many available ingredients,” says Linda Funk, executive director, The Soyfoods Council. "Soy is a simple ingredient that fits into all of today’s trends, and farmers can capitalize on that by talking about their sustainability.”

The 2018 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Food & Health Survey released in May shows taste and price remain key drivers for consumer purchases. Familiarity (a new survey addition) is also significant, outpacing healthfulness, convenience and sustainability.

“One of the driving consumer trends is heightened awareness and demand for quality protein particularly at breakfast and snacks. This is reinforced by the desire for self-care. Consumers are looking to protein to power and energize their day,” says Pam Smith, R.D.N,
nutritionist and industry culinary consultant. Smith provides menu innovation and insight for such groups as The Culinary Institute of America, Disney and Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. “The restaurant industry is innovating around menu items that provide quality, healthful plant-based proteins, creating dishes that are craveable, delicious and nutritious,” she says. “Giving food global flavors and adventure adds a compelling reason to try a new dish.”


Going forward, expect more plant-based foods and derivatives in practically every aisle of the supermarket, says Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue in Chicago. She also is an adjunct professor of food safety regulations for Johns Hopkins University.

“People are looking for plant-derived versions of their favorite foods that were traditionally made from animal-based ingredients, such as eggs, milk, cheese and meat. Grains, legumes, seeds and nuts offer good-tasting proteins that can enhance the taste of the other ingredients while also being a powerhouse of nutrients,” says Shelke.

Consumers view protein from plant sources as more healthful than protein from animals, finds the IFIC Foundation survey, and consumers are intrigued with meatless protein grown in labs. Vivera, a Dutch company, recently launched in Europe a steak made with wheat and soy protein.

“Scientifically engineered foods are a bit of a paradox,” says Shelke. “They are sought by people concerned about ingredients derived from animal sources because of the amount of land, water and energy animal production requires. Acceptance of unique, plant-based sources seems like an environmentally conscious one. On the other hand, acceptance of meat grown from self reproducing animal cells by consumers who shun highly processed foods is baffling considering the amount of processing to which these foods are subjected.”


Expect to see healthier, environmentally friendlier versions of every animal-based consumer favorite, predicts Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue in Chicago. Linda Funk, executive director, The Soyfoods Council, observes millennials, especially, are interested in having plant and animal protein on the same plate – a flexitarian approach – giving soy two opportunities for use as both a food and as animal feed for meat production.

“Soy is a preferred plant protein, so we must talk about it that way to increase demand. It is a complete and versatile food. You can customize or add protein to other foods through soy,” she says. “More consumers also enjoy soy as a side dish when not eating plant-based protein.”


Shelke identifies people worldwide seeking food that is good for health as another overarching trend. People are looking for minimally processed ingredients that are sourced and produced in a way that does not harm the environment and that are intrinsically wholesome.

“Demand for healthy foods, in conjunction with the growing appeal of intrinsically wholesome foods, presents the opportunity to identify and combine these foods for a new taste and health boost,” she says. “Dried fruits, seeds like chia, flax and pumpkin, and even edamame, are preferred over highly fabricated foods consumers cannot associate with anything in nature.”

Food customization can be gotten through several experiences including food halls, where consumers build meals to personal taste, and from food trucks. Customization caters to allergies and allows adventurous eaters to try the next global cuisine or underexplored regional food.

Shelke notes protein-rich crops like lentils, mung bean and soybeans offer a range of tastes and textures and functionalities to produce an analog of practically every consumer favorite. Another food experience trend is the “bowl” concept for breakfast, grains, vegetables and salad, according to Smith. “Soyfoods bring a delightful contrast of flavors and textures, and a high quality, nutrient-rich protein into play,” she says. “An extension of bowls is mason jar meals of overnight oats soaked in soymilk for a quality protein that other plant-based milks lack.”

The IFIC Foundation survey concludes context is key in how consumers perceive healthfulness of two products with otherwise identical nutritional content. When asked to identify the healthier of two products with the same Nutrition Facts Panel, 40 percent perceived one labeled “non-GMO” as healthier versus less than 20 percent for that same product made with genetically engineered ingredients. More than one-third believed a product with a shorter ingredient list was healthier than one with more ingredients, compared to less than 20 percent for a nutritionally identical product with a shorter ingredients list.

So how can Illinois soybean farmers capitalize on these food trends? By proactively discussing sustainable practices in play on their soybean farms.

The IFIC Foundation survey finds sustainable food production looms large with 59 percent of consumers saying it’s important for what they purchase and consume. Other data regarding food purchases show 22 percent said it was very important to know where food comes from, 16 percent said it was very important to understand how the food was produced and 16 percent said it was very important to be able to access information about how the food was produced.

“Millennials and centennials want to know what’s in their food, where it comes from and how it’s grown. They want to celebrate the U.S. farmer and sustainability,” says Smith. “In this marketplace, environmentally friendly, locally sourced foods like soy are attracting attention.”