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Once the near-exclusive domain of hard-core health food store denizens, soy beverages are today on the routine shopping lists of customers at conventional supermarkets.
According to a report released in July by U.K.-based consultancy Zenith International, consumption of soy beverages in North America, Western Europe, and Japan has more than doubled since 2002, with those markets having experienced 12 percent growth in 2006 alone.
"Increasing numbers of consumers are drawn to the health appeal of soy," observes Zenith research director Gary Roethenbaugh. "With increased availability through major supermarkets and strong innovation by some of the major drinks manufacturers, soy beverages are finding their way into the shopping trolleys of the mainstream consumer."
The consultancy cautioned, however, that further growth in soy beverages could occur only if manufacturers are able to meet consumers' taste expectations through innovative offerings, since taste remains the key to attracting new shoppers to the category and driving repeat purchases.
With this challenge confronting the category, what are manufacturers doing to keep the momentum going, for retailers and consumers alike?
For one thing, they're swiftly responding to consumer interest in health and wellness.
"Vitasoy was able to address the educational needs of the female marketplace when it comes to breast health, by quickly getting out a 'pinkie' campaign of single-serve soy milks to give away at breast health events," says Pam Dietz, innovation director at Ayer, Mass.-based Vitasoy USA, which introduced shelf-stable soy milk, along with tofu, to the United States over 30 years ago. "[Its] mission: education about breast health and the soy connection."
Responding to consumers' health concerns is also top of mind for Silk, the soy milk brand from Broomfield, Colo.-based WhiteWave Foods. This year alone, the brand has introduced Silk Plus for Bone Health, which includes added nutrients to support strong bones; Silk Plus Omega-3 DHA, featuring calcium, vitamins D and A, and life'sDHA, a 100 percent vegetarian and sustainably derived source of omega-3 DHA; and Silk Plus Fiber, which offers five grams of fiber per eight-ounce serving -- as much as a large apple or a bowl of oatmeal.
What's more, next month Silk will roll out its "Mind. Body. And Silk." promotion to position the brand "as an agent for positive change, emphasizing that change is a journey of small changes for personal growth through physical and mental wellness," explains WhiteWave spokeswoman Sara Loveday.
"We will help consumers facilitate their journey...through promotional opportunities that optimize our partnerships, and create engaging online opportunities to give tips and share stories," says Loveday. "We will reward consumers for their small changes through partnership offers, expert content, and community sharing, with the grand prize of a custom spa retreat. Secondary prizes are gift certificates to SpaFinder.com, Lady Footlocker, Barnes & Noble, and more."
In keeping with Zenith's counsel, Vitasoy is also offering tasty product innovation. "Intense-flavor 'seasonals' are treats that tempt soy milk nonusers to take the plunge, while adding some much appreciated excitement and variety to the lives of current category users," explains Dietz. "Consumers respond to flavors that are only going to be on the market for a short period. It prompts sales."
Although typically "the soy category is not known for flavor," admits Dietz, "Vitasoy, with both its Nasoya tofu and its soy milks, [is] becoming known for signature flavors. We have home runs with our winter Holly Nog and Peppermint Chocolate, and our summer Banana line. These flavor intensities are also designed to appeal to specific ethnic groups."
Vitasoy isn't the only brand offering new and exciting flavors, however.
"Silk is constantly looking to innovative flavors, like Silk's Chai, Mocha, Coffee, Spice, and [newly introduced seasonal variety] Pumpkin Spice, to meet ever-changing consumer taste," says Loveday. "In addition, we're constantly looking for ways to improve our packaging to meet consumers' needs for eco-friendly alternatives to traditional beverage packaging." (For more on Silk's green activities, see the online sidebar).
A key strategy for Vitasoy is portability, a particular concern in this currently time-starved culture. "[W]hile single-serve Tetra boxes and Prisma [packaging] established the convenience segment, Vitasoy's new shelf-stable single-serve plastic bottle has redefined it," says Dietz, pointing out that "older kids, adults, and men especially feel foolish drinking from sippy boxes."
Each 11.5-ounce serving of lactose-, dairy-, cholesterol-, and trans fat-free Vitasoy Single Serve Organic Soymilk, available in Chocolate, Vanilla, and Plain varieties, offers 10 grams of protein. The product requires no refrigeration until after the bottle has been opened, thereby saving energy.
"Vitasoy offers families a win-win solution -- soy milk singles that save energy without any sacrifice of taste or convenience," notes Dietz. "More shelf-stable offerings are sure to be a part of every grocery store in the future, just like in Europe."
For shelf-stable soy milk in particular, convenience is the way forward, according to Dietz. "Most traditional supermarkets are shrinking their shelf-stable soy milk sets due to greater acceptance of refrigerated soy milk and growing consumer interest in rice, hemp, and almond milks," she says. "To survive long term, makers of shelf-stable soy milks must deliver their products in packaging formats that are convenient, portable, portion-controlled, and require no refrigeration. They must adapt the package to better fit today's more active, mobile lifestyles."
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Solae: Soy offers manufacturers respite from high dairy prices
In a world of soaring dairy ingredient prices, due to such factors as strong international demand and higher production costs, soy could represent a less expensive choice, says St. Louis-based Solae, a developer of soy-based technology for the food, meat, and nutritional product industries.
"Rising dairy protein costs affect food manufacturers in two ways: It lowers their short-term profitability and inhibits their ability to predict where their profitability might be down the road," explains Solae senior director, global strategy Will Black. "Solae's soy proteins can relieve those economic pressures and deliver similar nutritional and functional benefits."
Depending on the application, formulators can usually replace 20 percent to 100 percent of the dairy protein with soy protein, according to Solae, which adds that from a cost standpoint, soy provides direct savings of 20 percent to 50 percent compared with commonly used dairy proteins, and offers the further advantages of stable pricing and supply availability.
What's more, recent advances in technology make it more possible than ever for dairy ingredients to be replaced by soy, the company notes.
"We have worked closely with our customers for many years, helping them save formula costs by replacing dairy proteins with our soy proteins," says Black. "However, what's different today is that we have a broader portfolio of potential solutions -- both product and formulation approaches -- that we can tap into."
Gone with the wind
Silk's dedication to a greener future goes well beyond sustainable packaging solutions. The refrigerated soy milk brand, which is manufactured by Broomfield, Colo.-based WhiteWave Foods, launched a promotion called "Green Caps" in which it quite literally invited consumers to help it catch the wind.
Recounts WhiteWave spokeswoman Sara Loveday: "Every cap on our Silk soy milk half-gallon was green, and the process was simple: Purchase one package, enter that UPC online (at silksoymilk.com), and Silk donated enough wind energy to power one home for one day. The program further substantiated the brand's commitment to alternative energy sources, [as] its entire operation is powered by wind energy."
While most of the United States runs on coal, gas, or nuclear energy, Silk offsets 100 percent of the energy used to produce its products by purchasing wind energy, a pollution-free, environmentally friendly power source.
Since 2003, Silk's renewable energy purchases equate to taking 14,000 cars off the road or planting 18,000 acres of trees annually, according to Loveday.
Soy and health
Who drinks soy beverages? According to manufacturers, people who are concerned about their health. According to Pam Dietz, innovation director at Ayer, Mass.-based Vitasoy USA, among the main drivers "when it comes to the steady increase in consumer soy milk sales that we're experiencing":
--Vegetarian: "Consumers now understand that they have to incorporate fewer animal products in their diets, and soy milk…provides a tasty alternative for them," notes Dietz.
--Low fat and low calories: "We're a nation of dieters who understand that soy milk satisfies like dairy milk but without all the calories and fat," says Dietz.
--Heart health: "[This] continues to be a key benefit sought and expected by soy milk drinkers," observes Dietz, "thanks to the heart-health claim introduced [by the FDA in 1999, saying that 25 grams of soy protein consumed daily could lower cholesterol]."
"The soy milk industry continues to grow as more consumers recognize the role that food products play in their overall health," seconds Sara Loveday, spokeswoman for Broomfield, Colo.-based WhiteWave Foods, the manufacturer of Silk soy milk. "Soy milk is a great alternative for those who are lactose-intolerant or follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, and look to plant-based sources of food, like soy, to include in their meals. In addition, soy-based foods, including soy milk, have a pretty impressive health resume: Research suggests that soy consumption may decrease the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and some cancers. Soy protein has been shown to moderately reduce elevated blood cholesterol levels, and may lower blood pressure as well."
Consumers' concern with health even extends to whether the products they eat are organic, as both Vitasoy and Silk are. "Due in part to the increase in food scares, consumers are taking to heart the message that we are what we eat," says Dietz. "For this reason we are seeing a never-ending increase in interest for where products come from, what they’re made out of, and how they’ve been prepared for market. [Consumers are] willing to pay more this.
"Interest in natural and organic foods is on the increase because consumers believe them to be more healthy," adds Dietz, pointing out that organics have no genetically modified ingredients, as well as "a paper trail from cradle to grave."
"People are becoming increasingly aware of the need for good nutrition, and want to buy products that will deliver the maximum benefit," notes Loveday. "As consumers continue to discover that functional foods like soy offer an easy, convenient way to get their daily recommended dose of important vitamins and nutrients, the market for these foods will definitely continue to expand."
The future of soy beverages
A report from U.K.-based consultancy Zenith International noted that soy beverage consumption has experienced double-digit growth in the North American, Western European, and Japanese markets since 2002, but warned that continued growth could happen only by giving consumers the best-tasting products possible.
"Manufacturers of soy-and-fruit combinations will experience the majority of the market's growth, as they benefit from the greatest health and taste appeal," notes Zenith research director Gary Roethenbaugh. "Product positioning will become increasingly important as the dividing lines between soy, dairy, and fruit juices become ever more blurred. With further innovation in plant breeding, soy processing, microfiltration, and filling techniques, there is an opportunity to develop soy beverages with significantly improved taste, mouthfeel, and functionality."
Interestingly, as far as the United States goes, Zenith’s report found that the category's growth was leveling off, a statement more than borne out by recent data from Nielsen LabelTrends, which showed refrigerated soy milk down 4.4 percent at food/drug/mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 6, 2007, while shelf-stable soy milk (usually in aseptic packaging) was flat. Refrigerated flavored soy milk showed only minimal growth during that period, edging up just 0.5 percent.
Roethenbaugh isn't alone in his belief that new and better products are integral to the category’s expansion. "Soy milks of the future will taste better, and contain functional ingredients that deliver desired health benefits (cognitive function and GI health, etc.)," predicts Pam Dietz, innovation director at Ayer, Mass.-based Vitasoy USA. "Expect to see dairy/soy blends for consumers who seek the best of both worlds, as well as probiotic offerings. Obviously, clinical proof of efficacy will spur consumer interest and sales."
But new products alone won’t define the soy beverage category of the future, observes Dietz -- sustainability will play a big part, too. "Soy will be a major part of all Americans' future, as it is one of the highest-quality proteins on earth, and it can be produced using much less energy than animal proteins," she explains. "Shelf-stable soy options like Vitasoy will serve as a leader to large chunks of the food industry as it faces economic conditions that force it to reduce the need for refrigeration."