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Soya is one of the most widely consumed foods in the world and a great source of low-cost protein and essential fatty acids. However levels of consumption vary across the world - some geographical areas are historically high soya consumers whereas in other areas consumption is typically growing off a much lower base. Let’s look at a bit of history of soya consumption and understand some of the factors that have influenced its incorporation in our diets. 

Cultivation of soya for food appears to have originated in China and there are records of soya bean based food products that date back as far as 200BC – these are the oldest records available worldwide. So it is not surprising that China has the widest range of soya products coupled with high consumption levels. Early soy products included fermented black soya beans while tofu (soybean curd) started to appear in the 10th and 11th centuries in China and then in Japan so soya has a long history in that part of the world. 

Soya is believed to have found its way in to the Indian sub-continent from the 11th century onwards but only became prominent as an agricultural crop and food much later with commercial growing and processing into flour and oil only really taking off in the late 19th century. There was less emphasis on fermented and perishable soya derivatives than was the case in the Far East, probably because of the very hot climate in the Indian sub-continent. 

The other geographical area where soya has a significant history is in America and soya is believed to have found its way there from the Far East as early as the 16th century. It only became a major crop in the early 20th century but has acquired huge commercial significance throughout both North and South America in the last 50 years. 

What sort of benefits have come from soya in these various regions? As can be seen above, they became a major component of people’s diets in the Far East much earlier than elsewhere. While the true nutritional significance of soya has only become acknowledged in the last 100 years in line with the development of nutrition science as a whole, it is clear that the widespread consumption of soya in a wide range of forms in that part of the world must have (albeit unknowingly!) had a significant positive impact of the well-being of the people consuming it. It can be speculated that the long lives and comparative freedom from chronic diseases observed in Far Eastern populations can be at least partially attributed to consumption of a healthy diet with strong emphasis on vegetable rather than animal derived foods. We cannot however exist without a certain amount of both protein and fat in our diets and a vegetarian diet is typically pretty low in both of these.  Soya comes to the rescue here with its high content of good quality vegetable protein and its oil with a large proportion of nutritionally desirable fatty acids. The Chinese have probably also benefitted extensively from the consumption of soya in forms such as fermented products and tofu whose production processes (even at household level as would have been the case in pre-industrial times) reduce the levels of anti-nutritive factors in the soya, thus further improving its nutritional properties.     

In other parts of the world, we have seen three particular trends in the consumption of soya. Firstly it has been used as a convenient low cost source of protein and fat and a wide range of processing techniques and soya based products have been developed to take advantage of this while simultaneously addressing the challenge of imparting good flavour to soya products.  Among the techniques used are roasting, extrusion, soaking and steaming. Products that result from these processes include textured vegetable protein and soya milk – both of these are products acceptable to people in terms of taste as the processing is designed to remove the harsh flavours associated with raw soya beans, but also provide nutritional benefits.  

The second area of importance relates to specific properties of the soya proteins which include the ability to absorb water and fat, provide a thickening effect and stabilise mixtures of solid materials and water.  This has resulted in a wide range of specialised food ingredients being developed from soya, particularly in processed meats where, contrary to popular opinion, soya proteins are often added not to ‘dilute’ the meat in order to save costs for the manufacturers but rather to provide texture and palatability – many of the processed meats we consume could not be made in the form we know them without soya proteins. 

The third area is perhaps the most interesting one in that it is a great example of how food and diet are becoming more globalised. The last twenty years in particular have seen a big increase in the consumption of many soya products throughout the world that had previously only been consumed in the Far East. Products such as miso paste, tempeh and tofu are now consumed by consumers throughout the world who not only find them palatable and indeed novel in terms of their eating characteristics but who also realise what the Chinese have been showing us for hundreds of years, namely that they are healthy foods that can play an important role in our diets. Soya products that have historically only been found in health food shops patronised by upper income consumers are now becoming more mainstream and sophisticated packaging and preserving techniques are now common, as is seen in products such as chilled or frozen tofu and soya milk in long-life packaging. Consumers from parts of the world other than the Far East were previously only exposed to most soya products if they were fortunate enough to travel there and sample the local cuisine but can now often pick these products off the shelves of their local supermarket! Soya products are also a major portion of the ever increasing global market for vegetarian products, particularly for persons who specifically want to replace meat in their diets. 

What does this mean for developing countries such as Kenya? There are clearly opportunities for soya at different levels. For consumers with limited purchasing power, the incorporation of soya based ingredients into cereal based products will significantly increase their nutritional quality at  relatively low cost and, if processed correctly, will still be palatable. Low income consumers have just a much of a right to good-tasting food as those with more money to spend on their food and soya can definitely help here. For more affluent consumers, soya ingredients enable a wide range of palatable processed foods to be produced and for the more adventurous, products such as soya milk and tofu provide novelty and good nutritional quality at a relatively low cost. 

It is a well-worn cliché to state that the world is becoming a smaller place but that is the reality and it certainly applies to the food we eat. Consumption of soya products is a significant feature of this trend and the three prongs of good nutrition, novel flavours and textures and sophisticated technology that can bring its benefits to people who are cautious about eating unconventional foods in a conventional format will go a long way towards making soya products available to consumers throughout the world. 



Sunley Consulting