The Little Bean with a Big Influence: St. Louis is a soy protein production hot spot

Soy is certainly getting a lot of press these days. Soy-based meat and dairy alternatives have hit the mainstream grocery stores in force; retail sales of soy foods exceeded $4 billion in 2003, which outpaced the growth of all other food categories.

Currently, Karen Buckey, owner of The Natural Way health food stores, offers 237 soyfood products, a sharp rise from even just a few years ago. “Years ago, soy was a small market targeted to vegetarians. When the [Food and Drug Administration] linked soy intake and cardiovascular health, the market just exploded. It happened again when research found that soyfoods might be a safer alternative to hormone replacement therapy. And the products have only improved in quality and taste.” To keep this upward trend alive, flavor developers are looking for ways to eliminate the beany off-flavor associated with many soy products, and to make soyfoods resemble the foods that consumers grew up with - milk, beef and chicken.

The flavor of soyfoods is dependent upon two things: the original bean itself and the flavoring that was added to the product. At the agricultural level, beans are selected and bred for varieties that offer a preferential flavor. Laboratory development focuses on the texture of the soy protein. “The new, higher-moisture-extruded meat alternatives have more of a muscle meat texture similar to what you would find with a chicken breast,” said Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, a national consulting group for soyfood producers. “When you cut into a chicken breast, you can see the muscle fibers. We are going to see more of that with the soy meat alternatives.”

When you look at a soybean, it’s hard to picture burgers, sausages, cheese slices, milk, butter and frozen desserts. But once soy protein is extracted from the bean, it’s converted into one of three major forms: flour, protein concentrates and protein isolates. These are the compounds used in the products that line the grocery store aisles. Soy flour, made by grinding hulled, defatted soybean flakes, is approximately 50 percent protein. Soy protein concentrates are derived through a process that removes part of the carbohydrates from defatted and dehulled soybeans. The concentrates are high in fiber and contain at least 65 percent protein. Concentrates are made into textured soy protein, the basis of many of the veggie burgers and “chicken” nuggets. Soy protein isolates are almost pure protein; through a water extraction process, the carbohydrate and fat is removed, thus eliminating the classic “soy” flavor and leaving a product that is 90 percent protein. Their blandness makes them ideal for use in soy beverages and cheese-like products.

When it comes to the nutrition in a soybean, one word that has gotten a lot of attention lately is isoflavone. Isoflavones are naturally occurring plant components that exert estrogen-like effects on the body. Recent human clinical research suggests that isoflavones are among the bioactive compounds that work in conjunction with soy protein to lower blood cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health.

The evidence is so conclusive that in 1999 the FDA gave approval for products with minimum of 6.25 grams of soy protein to carry the following health claim: “25 grams of soy protein a day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Soy consumption has been linked in clinical trials to several other health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and breast, prostate and colon cancer. Other potential health benefits are currently under study, including soy’s impact on diabetes, kidney disease and weight management. The only research that has been conclusive in any direction, however, is the finding that soy does help lower cholesterol levels. However, The Solae Company feels so strongly that soy helps prevent cancer that in March 2004 it filed a petition with the FDA to allow health claims linking consumption of soy foods and beverages to a reduction in cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. If the FDA permits the claim, it will determine the wording that can be used. The verdict was expected last month.

At the same time, there have been studies linking soy consumption with breast cancer and thyroid problems. “Two isoflavones in soy foods, daidzein and genistein, are considered weak estrogens because they are structurally similar to the body's natural hormone estrogen,” said Amber Wamhoff, a registered dietician with Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Other concerns about soy’s safety focus on blocked mineral absorption. Soy is also firmly embroiled in the continuing debate over genetic engineering; in 2001, 68 percent of all U.S.-grown soybeans were genetically modified, and manufacturers of GMO crops are pushing for broader use. Although consumers are iffy on GMOs, there has been an enthusiastic response to soy meat and dairy alternatives.

Whole soybeans pack in a lot of nutrition – a cup of cooked, shelled edamame provides 250 calories, 22 grams of protein, 11 grams of fat (85 percent unsaturated), 20 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of fiber. Soy is also a significant source of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, zinc, iron and the antioxidant vitamin E. Vegetarians rely on soy because it’s the only plant-based protein that provides all the amino acids necessary to form a complete protein.

St. Louis-based Solae is a major manufacturer of soy protein. Its Web site claims that its soy protein is used in 80 percent of the clinical research that is conducted on soy, and soyfood manufacturers widely use its proteins in their products, including Gardenburger, Gimme Lean and Yves brands. This makes Solae a major stakeholder in the soyfoods scene. According to Dr. Greg Paul, Global Director of Health and Nutrition for Solae, “Solae’s extraction process preserves the protein and isoflavones that you find in the whole soybean. These are the elements that confer the health benefits of soy, and they are often lost in other extraction methods. The process also removes some of the fat and carbohydrate.”

A partnership between DuPont and Bunge, Solae has also developed technologies that enable it to meet a customer’s specific requests. Solae produces both GMO and non-GMO varieties of soy protein. “Some of our developments extend the shelf life of the soy products, particularly the health bars,” Paul said. “We also understand which ingredients combine well for optimal flavor. Some of this is achieved genetically.” He explained that while Solae produces only the soy protein, it works very closely with its customers to help them formulate the flavors for their soy products. “Food technology allows us to meet the needs of the customer while preserving the highest protein content.”

It makes sense that St. Louis is a hotspot for soy-protein production – in 2003, Missouri produced 146 million bushels of soybeans, ranking it seventh in the nation. Another local company that’s taking advantage of the availability of the beans is AB Foods, the producer of AuraPro, a new meat alternative. According to the AuraPro Web site, the product is targeted not at vegetarians necessarily, but rather at “customers who have discerning taste and who desire a healthier alternative” to meat. It’s made with plant-based protein sources including soy and wheat, and the emphasis is on authentic taste. AuraPro is currently available only to restaurants and food-service providers. Products include chopped beef, chicken, pork, crab and sausage alternatives. These forms of AuraPro can be found on numerous menus around town.

The future of soy looks bright, according to Buckey. “Past sales performance and the need for customers to adopt healthier lifestyles is likely to drive the demand for soy,” she said. Future products may include blends of different kinds of protein, including soy, or products that combine soy protein with other functional ingredients like omega-3s or probiotics. “People in the health community have known all along that soy is good for you. It’s nice that science is catching on, too.”