Sustainable Soy Foods Align With Consumer Values

            Food constitutes a significant part of sustainability concerns. With the  U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) and the commitment of U.S. soybean growers, soy foods are likely to stay ahead of the sustainability trend. Foods made with high-quality U.S. Soy can provide complete plant protein. Soy foods also help support the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including zero hunger and good health/well-being. World Environment Day on June 5 is said to be the biggest international day for the environment, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and celebrated by millions of people globally.[1] 

            Many consumers currently prioritize eating healthfully over lowering their carbon footprint. Nevertheless, 64% of U.S. consumers rank sustainability as one of their goals. All told, younger shoppers are the most motivated to limit their personal impact on climate change.[2] Among plant protein choices, soy is the only one comparable in quality to animal protein. According to USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, fortified soy beverages (soy milk) and soy yogurt are included as part of the dairy group for individuals who choose dairy alternatives. Based on nutrient composition and their use in meals, soy milk and soy yogurt are similar to milk and yogurt.[3]

The Evolving Sustainability Narrative

            Environmental concerns take many forms. More than half (51%) of global consumers believe their country suffers from climate change. In the UK, consumers name plastic pollution as their second-largest concern.[4] Additionally, worldwide consumers are projected to align their food and drink choices with their vision for the future. Approximately 59% of German consumers now believe their sustainability actions can make a positive difference for the environment, and 76% of Indonesian consumers agree that climate change will affect the foods and drinks they purchase.[5]

            In a recent survey of U.S. consumers, 60% said everyone has a responsibility to take care of the environment, and 53% said the health of the environment was important to them.[6]  Based on greenhouse gas emissions per gram, soy is a protein with low environmental impact. Soy is also among the protein sources with the lowest retail prices per gram.[7]

Soy Innovators Help Reduce Food Waste

            The environmental impact of food waste is inspiring innovative companies to find ways of upcycling foods. Upcycled ingredients have a positive environmental effect because they turn byproducts that would otherwise not be used for human food into another desirable food product. The upcycled food products market is anticipated to grow from $53.7 billion in 2021 to $97 billion by 2031.[8] For example, okara—the soy pulp byproduct from soy milk and tofu production—contains 57% to 59% dietary fibers, 15% to 34% protein and 6% to 16% fat. Okara also provides minerals and antioxidants, including isoflavones.[9] A Swiss company recently launched a line of plant-based meat made with okara. In Singapore, a partnership is working to create soy cheese featuring upcycled okara. A launch of the finished product is anticipated within the next year.[10] In the U.S., upcycled okara is being used in commercial products such as cookies and baking mixes.

Food Choices Can Help Address Energy Conservation and Climate Change

            Innovative food and drink products address consumer concerns in a variety of ways. For example, 59% of consumers in Spain say they are interested in climate change and 57% are interested in saving energy. Mexican consumers are slightly behind them, with 57% naming climate change and 51% interested in energy saving. Among Chinese consumers, 53% are interested in climate change and 51% in saving energy.[11] Thanks to their long shelf life, traditional soy foods such as silken tofu, shelf-stable soy milk and soy nuts can offer easy-to-use nutrition during weather emergencies or at natural disaster sites.

            Consumer concerns may help increase the demand for soy foods. Traditional soy products such as Textured Soy Protein (TSP, also called TVP or Textured Vegetable Protein) are economical, convenient protein sources. TSP provides 11g of high-quality protein per serving,[12] is lightweight, and has a long shelf life. Shelf-life matters to shoppers who like to plan ahead due to post-pandemic uncertainties related to economic pressures and climate changes. One innovative company in Japan has met this need by extending the shelf life of 31 items, from 19 months to 25 months.[13]

            With rising energy costs, consumers also are seeking energy-efficient foods and beverages. These include products that use less energy to store or prepare, including meals that can be made in microwaves or air fryers. Soy foods such as soy-based chicken nuggets come with air fryer instructions. More than 25.6 million air fryers have been sold in the U.S. over the past two years, representing a 76% increase.[14] The initial rise in air fryer cooking was attributed, in part, to health consciousness. Microwave cooking, too, is convenient and quicker than conventional ovens. Frozen bowl meals made with tofu require 40 minutes of cooking in a conventional oven but offer the option of cooking for four minutes in a microwave. Soybean chili in heat-and-eat pouches requires only 90 seconds of microwaving.

            As environmental concerns increase, interest in soy-based meat and dairy alternatives may rise. Growing soybeans has been shown to be a sustainable and energy efficient way of producing protein to meet the demands of the world’s growing population.[15]


This article was (partially) funded by the United Soybean Board.

[1] United Nations Environment Programme. World Environment Day, 2023.                      

[2] McKinsey & Co. “Hungry and Confused: The Winding Road to Conscious Eating,” October 5, 2022.

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.

[4] Mintel Global Outlook on Sustainability: A Consumer Study, 2023.

[6] Datassential. “Sustainability in the Spotlight.” FoodBytes Sustainability Keynote Sneak Peek. September, 2022.

[7] World Resources Institute. Protein Scorecard.

[8] Allied Market Research. Upcycled Food Products Market Size to Generate $97 billion by 2031. Press release. March 29, 2023.

[9] Asuka Suzuki, RD and Jinan Banna, PhD, RD. “Improving Diet Quality for Chronic Disease Prevention with Okara “Food Waste.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 2020.

[10] Food Navigator Asia.   “Soy Story: Singapore Start-Up Reveals Commercialisation and Partnership Plans for Upcycled Foods from Soy Waste.” April 3, 2023.

[11] Mintel 2023 Global Food and Drink Trends.

[12] US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2016. Nutrient Data Laboratory.USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

[13]  Mintel 2023 Global Food and Drink Trends.

[14] NPD, “Over 25 Million Air Fryers Sold the Last Two Years, Making it a Must-Have Appliance.”

[15] Messina M. “Perspective: Soybeans Can Help Address the Caloric and Protein Needs of a Growing Global Population.” Frontiers in Nutrition. 2022 May 6;9:909464. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2022.909464. PMID: 35600829; PMCID: PMC9121873.