There is no mistaking tofu. With its white, chunky appearance and soft spongy texture, in no way does this soyfood resemble any common American food. Until now, that is. In the past few years, manufacturers have succeeded in transforming soybeans into everything from faux lunchmeats to milk-free dairy products, and the results are astounding. Plus, considering the fact that the government is now officially recommending Americans make soy a significant part of their daily diet, there is no telling what innovative soy products will soon be lining the shelves.
"The only limitation on what can be done with soyfoods is your imagination," says John Panaro, marketing director for Genisoy, a California-based soy-product company. "For instance, just five minutes ago someone dropped an experimental batch of praline-flavored soy nuts on my desk. They tasted so good, you could eat them for dessert."
Like most soyfood manufacturers, the people at Genisoy are elated over the recent FDA health claim on soy protein because they know Americans will begin taking soy more seriously. "People put a lot of faith in what the government recommends," says Panaro. "This FDA ruling is the stamp of approval that many people need before they will use a product."
There was a time when using soy meant attempting complex ethnic dishes or secretly slipping some tofu into lasagna or a stew. These days, soyfoods are so tasty and versatile that they can be incorporated into the diet without the slightest inconvenience or deviation from one's normal routine.
"The folks at White Wave have been working to integrate soy into the American diet by making foods that are more familiar and easy to use," says Susan Holden, the Colorado-based company's public relations representative. "They have really tried to take the consumer's needs into consideration when creating new products."
For soyfood companies, giving the public what they want has meant fine-tuning soy milk products so that they taste creamy rather than nutty, as well as developing reduced-fat soyfoods, ready-to-eat entrèes and sandwich fillers. Just spend a few minutes poking around the refrigerated cases at your favorite health food store and you'll be amazed at the options.
"I suspect in the near future consumers won't have to go to a health food store to buy these products," says Alice Pacer of Vitasoy. "Certain soyfoods have already hit the mainstream, and we expect the trend to continue."
There is no doubt that companies like Vitasoy are catering to the American diet when creating new products such as soy-based condiments, salad dressings, cold cuts and beverages. "We are also launching an all-organic fresh soy milk," says Pacer. "Instead of being on the dry goods shelves, it will be stocked in the refrigerated dairy section where the general public feels more comfortable buying milk."
Helping to make Americans comfortable with soy is also one of the main goals of Nasoya brand manager Amy Towle. "We have recently put a 1-800 number on the back of our packages to provide the public with recipes and nutritional information," says Towle. "You wouldn't believe how many calls we get from first-time buyers. They say, 'OK, I bought your tofu, now what do I do with it?' We want to help take the mystery out of soy."
Although soy products may be becoming less mysterious, the issue of using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in soyfood production is growing more confusing. In case you've missed the recent buzz, GMOs are plants whose genetic "blueprint" has been altered via the cutting and transferring of genes from one species to another. This process is said to bring about benefits such as stronger crops, or fruits and vegetables that can remain fresh longer without spoilage; however, there is growing concern about the safety of such genetic manipulation.
It is estimated that more than 30 percent of our nation's soybean crops are genetically engineered. Furthermore, many of these altered strains of plants are now being sprayed with potent herbicides, since genetic engineering has made them strong enough to withstand such chemicals. "It is important to us to use all-organic soybeans in our products," says Towle. "And to the best of our knowledge, we are using non-GMO soybeans as well. But since there are no labeling rules as yet, you can never be 100 percent sure. That is why we are pushing for some kind of federal regulations."
Most soy companies support governmental regulation of genetic engineering because they are concerned about the public's health. "Vitasoy is already using non-GMO beans," says Pacer. "And we are moving in the direction of being GMO-free."
The phrase "GMO-free" is not one that can be tossed around lightly. In fact, it is a term that represents a very careful and labor-intensive process. When talking about soybeans, it means starting out with a soybean that is non-GMO. "Then, in order to safeguard against the accidental addition of GMOs to these non-GMO soybeans, the special crop must be controlled at every stage — planting, harvesting, transportation, storage, processing and production of soy-based ingredients and the foods that contain them," says Ed Cabelera, vice president of marketing at Genisoy. And he should know, since all of Genisoy's products are given such strict attention.
As the GMO issue evolves and consumers become more aware of which companies use engineered soybeans and which do not, the soyfoods market will undoubtedly become even more competitive. "I think the future of soy products is all about choice for the consumer," suggests Towle. "Soon the big players are going to enter into the arena, and you will have shelves and shelves of soy cereals and soy breads."
Whether or not the big food conglomerates jump onto the soy bandwagon, it doesn't look as though the public will be lacking in ingenious soyfood options. And, considering that soy companies have already transformed hot dogs and ice cream into health foods, could French fries and doughnuts be far behind?