Alternative Proteins

Plant-based proteins: Has soy fallen out of fashion?

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Amy Wilson, CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Amy Wilson, CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons

Related tags Soy protein

Products plastering a ‘free from soy’ claim as a virtue on their packages are more ubiquitous today. What does this mean to soy-based protein products?

American consumers aren’t buying soy products as much as they used to. Euromonitor​ data shows steep declines: Retail value of soy drinks and soy milk-like beverages have been in a continuous drop since 2013. The steepest decline, by 55% between 2013 and 2016, was for soy drinks (drinks made of soy with a minimum of 20% added juice).

There was also a decline in total volume consumption of soy protein isolate (from 90,539 tons in 2013 to 89,826 tons in 2015), as well as a slight dip of soy protein concentrate (45,592 tons in 2013 to 45,392 tons in 2015).

“Soy milk was a leader for a long time, but the almond milks, rice milks, and then every other milk that came after changed that, and I think that’s the first place we saw that shift in soy protein popularity,” ​Kara Nielsen, culinary ‘trendologist,’ told FoodNavigator-USA.

A look at soy product launches

Nielsen, who has had 25 years of professional culinary experience and has had an up close look at the new product development scene through her work with companies including Sterling-Rice Group and CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights, couldn’t recall the last time a new product prominently featuring its soy content was launched into the market that wowed consumers.

“I’ve also seen more soy-free claims on fortified products, bars, cereal bars, energy bars, as well as a lot of beverages,”​ Nielsen said, adding that more protein and sports-centric beverages are turning either to whey protein, or to cater to plant-based diets, pea protein.

There’s some hard data that indirectly supports Nielsen’s anecdotal evidence: There’s been a 400% increase of soy-free claims in beverage product launches from Q1 to Q2 of 2016 (despite a -62.5% decline for the packaged food space), according to data from Mintel​’s Global New Product Database.

Similarly, Chicago-based Label Insights​ found that out of 3,300 products in the beverage, bar and powder space that it has in its database, “33% contain soy protein, 5% include a soy-free claim and 3% claim to be ‘an excellent source of protein,’"​ a spokesperson for the analytics company told FoodNavigator-USA.

Under pea protein’s shadow in the plant-based protein space

Pea protein is slowly casting a shadow over soy protein as the plant-based ingredient, touted for non-allergenicity and being non-GMO​, emerges as a popular protein source in everything from chips​ to non-meat burgers​ to milk-like beverages​.

Manufacturers which make both pea and soy protein are starting to see more demand for the former. Take World Food Processing​ for example, a Minnesota-based company that makes both these plant-based proteins.

Our [pea] protein has gained significant momentum in the marketplace,” ​said Tyler Lorenzen, president of the company’s proteins and ingredient subsidiary. “We have been able to provide food manufacturers with a plant protein option that is not derived from soybeans, but delivers the functionality, protein quality, and flavor that are required to make great-tasting foods.”

He argued that most of the concerns over soy protein comes from allergies or concerns about the genetically modified kind that is dominant in the market. “Consumers are looking for multiple options of non-GMO plant based proteins,” ​he said. “Over all proteins, plant based proteins, and non-GMO plant based proteins are growing market share.”

Nielsen had a similar observation on soy’s decline, adding that some consumers are worried about soy’s alleged “estrogen mimicking side-effects​," though this is a smaller segment of consumers. Mostly, she claimed, its decline is caused by avoiding GMOs: “Most people assume [soy is] going to be GMO unless it says otherwise. That’s one of the main drivers steering people away from soy products.”

"Soy still has some of the best functionality compared to other plant proteins"

Ingredient company Farbest​ first noticed soy's decline in popularity two years ago and has gained traction ever since, especially among Millennials, said Farbest's dairy protein and gum product manager Michael Sutich. His observation is that the decline is driven by soy's position in the FDA's top 8 allergen list, and agreeing with Nielsen, the alleged adverse side effects from soy consumption. Despite this, Sutich said: "We have many customers who are still formulating with soy. Soy still has some of the best functionality compared to other plant proteins."

Perception of soy greatly differs from consumer to consumer, he said. "If we are looking at the average shopper who is looking for a meal replacement bar or RTD beverage, then [they] don’t really care about whether soy is in the product (you can see soy protein isolates in Naked Juices, Kellogg’s Special K products – which are aimed at the average consumer)," he added. "I think people who are more interested in health trends (paleo diet adherents, athletes, bodybuilders) who are more careful with their labels are the ones avoiding soy."

Pea protein may be on the rise, but according to Sutich's observation, "the market for soy protein is much larger than pea, customers have a lot of interest in pea but a lot of R&D money still needs to be spent before it can truly compete with soy."

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