Health trends drive soy milk craze

Related tags Soy milk Milk Lactose intolerance

Soy milk has been Western Europe's fastest growing 'dairy' sector
over the last six years, presenting new challenges to dairy firms
via consumer health trends and new fears over lactose intolerance,
reports Chris Mercer.

The value of Western Europe's soy milk market has more than doubled to €375m (£249.5m) between 1998 and 2004, thanks to consumer obsessions with health and wellness, according to a new report on the global dairy market from research group Euromonitor.

The report says soy milk has benefited from rising consumer awareness that soy is high in fibre, protein and minerals yet low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol.

There is a chance the trend could now be bucked by a medical study in the UK, which last week claimed the soy component genistein may damage human sperm.

However, the Euromonitor report says isoflavins found in soy milk have also been promoted as reducing the risk of many diseases, including breast and prostate cancer, colon disorders, osteoporosis and heart problems.

A growing number of consumers are also turning to soy milk because they are worried about lactose intolerance: when the body lacks enough of the lactase enzyme to break down lactose in dairy products, leading to varying symptoms including bloating, abdominal pains and diarrhoea.

The UK Dairy Council said recently that around 45 per cent of Britons (27m) claimed to be lactose intolerant, yet only two per cent had been clinically diagnosed. The official intolerance figure for Northern Europe and North America is around five per cent.

However, perceptions, together with publicised health benefits, have had a powerful effect.

The growth rate for Western Europe's soy milk market is going up, hitting nearly 20 per cent in 2003-4, up from 15 per cent in 2002-3 and 17.6 per cent in 2001-2.

The German market has risen particularly quickly, averaging growth above 70 per cent every year since 2001. The Spanish market too has risen by a combined 184 per cent over the last three years, but slowed slightly to 49 per cent last year.

The UK remains the biggest market with a value of €94m. France sits second on €73m.

Nevertheless, soy milk is still a long way below value of Western Europe's 'normal' milk market, valued by Euromonitor at €19.7bn in 2004. But, soy milk's rapid growth has made some dairy firms focus on how to beat the soy threat by harnessing its power.

Leading yoghurt brand Yoplait was the first to launch a yoghurt brand, Bioplait, combining soy and dairy proteins on the French market in April. This is now available in most multiple retailers and the product offers benefits to both sectors.

The yoghurt brand can make additional health claims on the product - Bioplait markets the cholesterol-lowering effect of soy and overall benefit for the heart on product packaging and TV advertising - while the soy protein supplier Solae, whose brand also features on the product, reaches a wider consumer base than the dedicated health food buyer.

More dairy firms have also looked at ways to embrace consumer concerns over lactose by reducing lactose content in their products, according to Euromonitor. This, together with cutting fat, "remained a core feature of product innovation at the end of the review period"​.

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