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Myth busted: processing soy does not lessen its nutritional benefits


Scientists from Unilever and Wageningen University and Research have discovered that, contrary to popular belief, processing soy does not decrease its protein nutritional quality, which confirms it as a valuable source of protein in plant-based foods.

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People are increasingly turning to plant-based diets for all sorts of reasons, in particular to improve their health and reduce their greenhouse gas footprint. This shift is sending sales of plant-based foods soaring, with some estimates suggesting the market could top $160 billion by the end of the decade.

Despite this reshaping of the food landscape, concern about the nutritional quality of plant-based alternatives and negative views about the impact of processing can be a blocker for people making the change.

So, scientists from Unilever and Wageningen University and Research set out to challenge these perceptions by looking at processed soy, an ingredient we use extensively across our foods portfolio, including in our Vegetarian Butcher range and ice cream products.

The results of the study were quite revealing.

As Amelia Jarman, our Future Health and Wellness Science and Technology Director, explains: “For the first time, a study comprehensively finds that the protein quality of soy used in our plant-based foods is not compromised during processing, contrary to misconceptions. In fact, processing soy slightly increases the protein’s nutritional quality.

“Given the rising demand from environmentally conscious consumers looking to transition away from meat but still looking for nutritious, high-quality food, this research is very exciting as it proves that meat-free alternatives actually do fulfil our bodies’ protein requirements.”

Bringing together the pieces of a jigsaw

Soy is a common ingredient in plant-based foods because of its high protein content and quality. But you can’t simply add soybeans in their natural form to a plant-based chicken chunk or an ice cream, for example. Before being used, they must undergo processing, which can take various forms including soaking, heating and dehulling.

To better understand the effect of processing on protein quality, the study assessed the digestibility indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) – the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s standard measure – of various products. The higher the score, the better the protein source fulfils our body’s requirements, with a score of 75 or above considered good.

Analysis of the data showed different protein quality scores between soy product groups, but the DIAAS score for soy protein concentrate – the most commonly used in food such as plant-based meat from The Vegetarian Butcher – was 88, which is slightly higher than the initial soy bean (which scores 85).

This research confirms that the soy ingredients we use in our plant-based food products are a good source of protein and just as good as the protein quality of soybeans.

Making healthier and plant-based options accessible to all

It has been known for some time that the world cannot sustainably feed itself at the rate we’re going – there is clearly a pressing need for meat and dairy alternatives.

In 2020, we committed to helping people transition to plant-based eating that’s healthier for them and the planet through our Future Foods commitment. We pledged to hit €1 billion annual sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025–27, which means our consumers will see a wider range of vegan and vegetarian options from our brands.

The knowledge we have gained from this latest research will help us to reach our sustainability commitments and to innovate further plant-based meats. It’s a stretching ambition but an achievable one given that the move towards plant-based foods continues to gather pace.

Plant-based alternatives offer huge commercial growth potential while, at the same time, giving consumers a simple way to transition to more sustainable diets. As Hanneke Faber, our President, Global Nutrition, says: “It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all”.

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