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Soy's sweet success

Long criticized for its taste, soy milk now has new flavors, a new look _ and booming sales.

Soy milk, long shunned for a taste often described as "yucky," has dressed itself up in new flavors and is going to town attracting supermarket shoppers.

"We sell a ton of it," said David Marston, assistant manager of the Shop & Save supermarket in Ellsworth, Maine. Grand Union Co., a Wayne, N.J., supermarket chain, said that starting 18 months ago, all of its 220 stores have stocked the beverage.

Soy milk is turning into one of the few nutrition products to break out of health food stores and find a welcome spot on supermarket shelves _ and that's no mean feat, given the product's history.

"Who would have thought 10 or 15 years ago that you would see soy milk in the supermarket of all places?" asks Andrew Jacobson, president of the natural and specialty brands division of Hain Food Group Inc., Uniondale, N.Y., a major soy milk producer.

Only a decade ago, the soy milk industry was offering a yellowish, somewhat bitter and beany-tasting beverage. Chinese consumers have savored it for centuries; North American consumers rejected it in droves. A survey in the 1980s showed that Americans ranked soy products as second only to liver as their least-liked food.

But in the past few years, soy milk producers have offered flavors such as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry that mask the soybean taste. They also changed their marketing strategy and capitalized on a flurry of reports on their product's possible health benefits.

The result: Soy milk sales are expected to reach $300-million in the United States this year, up 38 percent from last year and a rise from $2-million in 1980, predicted Soyatech Inc., a Bar Harbor, Maine, publishing and consulting firm that specializes in the soy industry.

Other soy products, such as tofu, which is curdled soy milk, are also enjoying increasing sales. But the rise of soy milk has been especially dramatic thanks to consumers such as David Stein, a 46-year-old Chicago businessman.

Stein said he drinks vanilla-flavored soy milk and cooks with it because of its reputed health benefits. He said it tastes just like a vanilla milkshake without the ice cream. Having grown accustomed to the beverage, he now finds regular milk tastes "terrible."

Depending on the production process, even some unflavored varieties nowadays taste almost like regular milk, though others have a nutty taste. Diane Meier, an Indiana homemaker, said she recently made clam chowder with soy milk and found it didn't affect the flavor.

To extend the beverage's market appeal, some companies have started offering refrigerated soy milk in regular milk cartons. Traditionally, soy milk has been sold in special airtight boxes that require no refrigeration _ a form of packaging that is familiar to European milk buyers but unfamiliar to most North American consumers.

Selling the drink in standard cartons next to regular milk reaches out to a big untapped market of consumers "looking for a milk-alternative product in the dairy case," said Ron Pieper, sales vice president of Imagine Foods Inc., a natural foods processor in Palo Alto, Calif. The company is currently introducing a refrigerated version of its Soy Dream brand of soy milk, he said.

White Wave Inc., a soy food company that pioneered the sale in this country of refrigerated soy milk, now markets its product, Silk, through dairies.

Silk sales will at least double this year, predicted Steve Demos, president of the Boulder, Colo., company. White Wave intends to hand out several million half-pint samples in the next 12 months and expects demand to surge as a result, Demos said. He said he has been in the soy business for 21 years "waiting for this year."

But if new marketing strategies helped soy milk, so did the August 1995 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. It reported research showing that soy foods cut the risk of heart disease by reducing harmful cholesterol. Other studies have indicated that a soy-rich diet could help prevent certain cancers and menopausal symptoms.

Soy milk sales are expected to get a further boost if the Food and Drug Administration allows the soy industry to advertise its products as cholesterol-reducing. The FDA is expected to rule on the matter before November.

Soy milk has enjoyed particularly brisk demand in Canada, even though it must be labeled "soy beverage" or "soy drink" there. The market for the product grew 75 percent in Canada last year and is expected to grow at a similar pace for the next four or five years, said Maheb Nathoo, chief executive officer of SoyaWorld Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia.

SoyaWorld isn't above taking a swipe at the competition in its advertising. It runs television ads featuring a cow, with its face disguised, confiding in an interview on the beverage that "I tried it. I liked it. And that's all I can say."

The dairy industry in the United States and Canada has ignored such slights. Soy milk may be increasingly popular, but statistics indicate that cows supply more than 99 percent of the milk market.

To some extent, growth in the soy milk market has been blocked by the product's reputation for causing intestinal gas. But one major supplier of soy to the beverage industry, Protein Technologies International, a St. Louis unit of DuPont Co., said its product solves the problem by removing gas-fomenting carbohydrates.

A remaining problem is that soy milk can cost as much as twice the price of cow's milk. But prices have declined to about half their level a decade ago in the United States. In Canada, an Ottawa superstore of Toronto-based Loblaw Cos. recently offered one popular Canadian soy milk brand, So Good, at the same price as regular milk.

Some enthusiasts don't mind paying a little more. "If that is where I'm wasting my money, I guess I'm in good shape," Stein said.