Euromonitor data shows the retail value of soy drinks and milk-like beverages have fallen a staggering 55% since 2015, as has the consumption of soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate, which each fell 0.8% and 1.2% from 2013 to 2015.
This likely is due in part to the increased fragmentation of the plant-based protein market, which now includes some unexpected sources such as duckweed and mushrooms. Even though soy was a front-runner in the non-dairy category, it is inevitable that its share would shrink as other nondairy milks made from macadamia nuts, peanuts and even pecans enter the market.
But there is more to soy than just protein that can benefit people’s health – and that of the planet, according to experts.
At the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Boston last month, soy health expert Mark Messina, who has researched soybeans for 30 years, explained the crop’s many benefits for people.
“Well at the basic level, from a nutrient perspective it is low in saturated fat, high in polyunsaturated fat and provides really high quality protein. Soybean has more protein than any other bean and the quality of the protein is higher than all the other plant-proteins,” he said, adding it also provides potassium, fiber and some the foods made with small sugars that stimulate growth of friendly bacteria in the gut.
Benefits for chronic disease
In addition, Messina said in the past 25 years, the focus on soy has shifted to its potential role in preventing a broad range of chronic diseases, including research published in 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found benefits for breast cancer prevention and treatment, including reducing the overall mortality by 13% among women who consumed more soy, the rate of death from breast cancer by 17% and the reoccurrence of tumors by 25%.
He also pointed to epidemiological data published in 2009 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the Nutrition and Cancer journals that suggest soy intake could reduce prostate cancer risk by as much as half.
On the topic of men’s health, studies published in the late 2000s in the journals of Nutrition and Fertility and Sterility show soy has no effect on circulating reproductive hormone levels in men – debunking the common myth that soy feminizes men.
The bean also has a heart health claim when at least 25 grams per day are consumed. However, new evidence that came to light in the past 10 years prompted the FDA to open an investigation to review the totality of the research. And while the agency has yet to render its verdict, last February it did deny a citizen petition requesting the claim be revoked. The agency explained the evidence in that case was not strong enough, but it will add that research to its pile for ongoing review.
Messina also noted that he recently published a paper in the journal Menopause that shows soy may be an anti-depressant.
Environmental benefits of soy
Soy isn’t just good for people, it also is good for the planet, according to Nancy Kavazanjian, a fourth generation farmer and director of the United Soybean Board, who explained how growing soy is helping to strengthen the sustainability of her farm by improving the health of the soil.
“We know our natural resources are what keep us farming. So we have to really protect our soil and the great thing about soy beans is it is one of those crops that actually fix nitrogen, so when we are growing corn … we can grow soy beans in between and know that we are really improving our soil,” she said.
When talking about the health impact on the planet of soy, it is impossible to ignore the duel impact of genetic engineering considering soy is practically the poster child for the technology in the US.
According to USDA data, 94% of soy planted in the US in 2016 was genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant. This is up from 17% about 20 years ago in 1997. And it is a higher percentage than any other US crop. Herbicide tolerant corn and cotton come in a distant second at 89%, followed by insect resistant cotton at 84% and insect resistant corn at 79%.
And while GMO gets a bad rap among some Americans, Kavazanjian says biotechnology has helped her farm soy more sustainably and it also has improved soy’s nutrition.
“As a farmer, again, GMO and biotechnology has really enabled us to farm smarter and more sustainably because we can grow more per acre with less input: less fuel, less herbicides, less fertilizer. But because of this whole debate … this last decade with the whole fear mongering over GMOS has meant that we haven’t been able to advance the science as much as we want,” she said.
Kavazanjian believes educating consumers about what genetic engineering is and how it compares to traditional breeding will help consumers feel more comfortable with GMOs. But that alone isn’t enough. Industry also needs to stop the front of pack labeling about non-GMO, because it is confusing and scaring consumers, she said.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom on the farmstead. Nancy says there are many ways that modern technology beyond genetic engineering is helping boost sustainability.
“There is so much more opportunity for us to be sustainable using modern technology. ... We are using GPS to make sure we get all our crop inputs exactly where we need them and I haven’t tilled my soil in almost 30 years so I am protecting my soil. I care about the water and the air and we are growing more and more with less. And all the data management that is coming out of farms, that is going to make us better, smarter, more sustainable than ever,” she said.
“The other thing that is exciting for me is we are learning about the soil. I told you my farm motto is our soil our strength and soil is a living organism just like all that biota we have in our stomach. We have all that biota going on in the soil and we are learning that there are good microbes and bad microbes and we are learning how to manage those naturally without a lot of chemicals, without tillage so that we can grow better crops. I think we are going to see a revolution underground with all these microbiota just like what we are seeing with the guts microbiota, so that is exciting,” she said.
Her comments closely echo those of Messina regarding microbiota – driving home the same message about the health benefits of soy.