Soy foods might prove to be a bright spot in this era of rising food prices and concerns about how climate change may affect the global food supply. As the world faces dual challenges to feed a growing population, soybeans offer the highest protein yield per hectare.[1] The U.S. is one of the world’s leading soybean producers and the second-leading soybean exporter. Currently, soybeans also account for about 90 percent of U.S. oilseed production.[2] Soybean oil, also known as vegetable oil, is a neutral flavored, attractively priced cooking oil with a wide range of culinary applications. Among its advantages is a high smoke point (450°F)[3] compared with many other cooking oils.

The surge of plant-based

Even though consumer priorities are evolving, U.S. Soy remains relevant. Soy foods are already a staple in Asian cuisines, and are now riding the crest of the burgeoning demand for plant-based foods. Reportedly, 42% of U.S. shoppers are making an effort to select plant-based foods or beverages.[4] Between 2015 and 2021, the number of new packaged consumer goods with a plant-based claim grew by nearly 700%.[5]

Globally, 20% to 25% of consumers have adjusted their purchase choices for environmental reasons, including choosing sustainably grown products and foods with environmentally friendly packaging.[6] With its U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), the U.S. Soy industry demonstrates its commitment to accountability and sustainability. Health of the planet remains the top concern for consumers overall,[7] although regional variations exist. In Latin America and Asia, the environment is a top purchase driver for those whose financial circumstances allow them to choose sustainable and ethical products.[8]

In the U.S., 72% of Gen Z consumers (18 to 24 years of age) follow eating patterns such as clean eating, mindful eating or a plant-centric diet. This group defines wholesome food as being a good source of nutrients (35%), fresh (34%) and food that contains fruits or vegetables (30%),[9]  with soy foods such as edamame—a plant protein often presented as a vegetable— addressing these preferences. Additionally, soy protein and soybean oil are ingredients in many of today’s newly introduced plant-based fish and chicken products.

Soybean oil’s staying power

Soybean oil is an all-purpose ingredient that helps home cooks and foodservice professionals control their food costs by cross-utilization. Soybean oil can be used for everything from baking to sautéing and frying, or as an ingredient in dressings, soups and sauces. Several

years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of a qualified health claim for soybean oil based on its ability to lower cholesterol.[10]

American consumers are controlling costs by having more dinners at home.[11] As evidence that home cooking styles are changing, 25.6 million air fryers have been sold in the U.S. over the past two years. The rise in air fryer purchases represents a 76% increase, and their usage has increased by more than 60% in the same time frame.[12] Despite the name of the appliance, air fryers use a minimum amount of oil to create crispy and chewy foods, offering opportunities for soybean oil. Europe was the leading regional market for air fryers in 2018 and  is estimated to remain dominant through 2025, due to increasing health consciousness and high product demand. Asia Pacific is expected to expand at the fastest CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 8.7% from 2019 to 2025.[13]

Soy-friendly opportunities

The soy foods diet-and-nutrition connection is poised to strengthen as consumers become increasingly aware of research about potential health benefits of soy.[14] In China, for example, 68% of adults agree that plant-based foods can help reduce the risks of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.[15]

Protein represents a key opportunity for plant-based products, yet another factor that favors soy foods. U.S. Soy is distinguished by its high-quality protein.[16] The majority of plant-based consumers say they would like to see more high-protein, plant-based dairy alternatives. The ongoing demand for product innovation is anticipated to increase the visibility of plant-based meats, and update the image of soy-based protein products.[17]

Of the top 10 new food and beverage product launches in 2021, eight were beverages. The top two food products were plant-based burgers made with soy protein concentrate, and a line of frozen convenience meals with global flavors, targeting consumers who follow low carb, high protein, meatless or gluten-free lifestyles.[18] One of the high protein meals is a Korean-inspired bowl with beef and edamame, an example of soy’s compatibility with animal proteins.

This article was partially funded by U.S. Soy farmers, their checkoff and the soy value chain.