What drives consumer preference for soy milk?

Soya milk in glass, soya beans in wooden spoon and bowl.
Soy milk and beans. Photo by winnond. Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The market for soymilk in Europe, the USA and Far East Asia is now main stream, not least because of the burgeoning rise in obesity, of lactose-intolerance, and the recognition that food should be varied and nutritious.

The sales rise was enormous and accounted for 15% of the market share in alternative dairy-like beverages and now amounts to just over a billion dollars in sales in the USA alone (Soyfoods Assoc. of North America, 2015). The market share is starting to wane however as other plant-based and nut-based milks gain traction. The main alternative is oat milk followed by almond milk.

One of the improvements has been the changes in flavour. Whether it is because the flavour has lost its long-held perception of bitterness to make it bland enough to rival milk or whether it has a ‘healthy’ perception, soy milk enjoys unrivalled popularity amongst other so-called health foods. It has been commented before how soy has a versatility that makes it ideal for high protein beverages and other foodstuffs which is a dream ingredient for product developers.

Health Benefits Of Soy Milk

The health benefits in soy milk are due to the soy isoflavones or phytoestrogens which cause the reduction or possible prevention of cancers (as with the presence of lunasin), diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and osteoporosis (Messina and Hughes 2003; Prakash et al., 2007; Banerjee et al., 2008; Villegas et al., 2009). The soy proteins are thought to help favourably modify blood lipid profiles ((Wong et al., 1998; Weidner et al., 2008), lower cholesterol (Anderson et al., 1995)  and even minimise osteoporotic like events such as bone thinning (Lydeking-Olsen et al., 2004).

Claims are few and far between on the benefits of soy itself. Given it is a protein source, you may well see a claim such as ‘Protein contributes to the maintenance of muscle mass’.

Production of Soy Milk

Soymilk is a water extract of soya beans and the process by which it is generated is to thoroughly soak the beans, wet grind to a pulp, filter and package in cartons or glass bottles. Most soy for European markets comes from various countries including the Ukraine, Italy, Spain and France.

Consumer Attitudes To Soy Milk: Research

Understanding the consumer likes and dislikes of soya milk is critical for those firms wanting to seek ways to grab a portion of the dairy market which is dominated by cows milk. So, a study using preference mapping of soymilks with various U.S. consumer groups proved a valuable insight into the market (Lawrence et al., 2016). The study was conducted at the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences in the North Carolina State University, (Raleigh, U.S.A). The objective was to identify the sensory attributes of soymilk that drove liking for the unflavoured version amongst various ethnic groups – Asian, Caucasian, and African American consumers based in the USA.

The research identified just three consumer clusters which were characterised as:-

  1. A sweet taste with vanilla or vanillin and sweet aromatic flavours and higher viscosity. This was preferred by the most consumers and any differences between consumer clusters were primarily in those drivers of dislike of .
  2. Consumers in Clusters 2 and 3 found any beany, green and grassy, and meaty, gravy flavours with astringency (drying) as very distasteful.
  3. The Cluster 3 consumers scored all their soymilks higher in liking than the Cluster 2 consumers, and were prepared to ignore any disliked attributes with the addition of sweet taste.

Off-Notes And The Beany Flavour

The word ‘beany’ often crops up in the defining descriptors for soy and so it is with consumers from various backgrounds. Even flavouring will not disguise the note but it does help to a certain extent. What this study will do is help product developers in their pursuit of refining soy milk drinks and choosing flavourings to promote the product.


The packaging tends to be always multi-serve 32-ounce (946 mL) aseptically pasteurised in the USA or 1 litre in Europe.  Soy milks allow for lactose-free, gluten free, low in unsaturated fat claims which are important consumer values. The processing is either aseptic or UHT-based.

Both private- and own-label brands are available.

Whitewave  Foods Company produce the Silk range which is available in the USA. They have an unsweetened organic soy milk which uses a vitamin and mineral blend of calcium carbonate, vitamin A, vitamin D2, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin B12

Other brands include Westsoy.

In Europe and the USA, Alpro offer a large range of varieties in nut- and plant-based milks. Their organic Soya drink is simply water and hulled soya beans (8%w/w) and has no sweeteners. The energy content is 132kJ/32kcal per 100ml. This retails at £1.80/litre (03/08/2022). It is available as a long-life product. They also have a chilled variant retailing at £1.75/litre which has added vitamins. It can be found in other flavours such as vanilla and chocolate. 

Soy milk from Alpro is also available for different age groups. There is a version for children 1-3 years old. The intention is to find an alternative to cows milk. This too contains vitamins B2, B12, C and D2 as well as iron and iodine.

There is also a soya drink for hot beverages called ‘Dairy Free Chilled My Cuppa’. This version contains 5.7% as well as vegetable oils and fats from shea and sunflower, and stabilisers using locust bean gum and gellan gum with an emulsifier using sucrose esters of fatty acids. This particular formulation relies on such ingredients to enable it to be added to hot products like tea and coffee.

Waitrose offer an unsweetened soya drink for £1/litre under their  ‘essentials’ range which is cheap against private labels. Their version has added calcium from tricalcium phosphate and vitamins (vitamin B2 – riboflavin[15% NRV], vitamin D [15% NRV] and vitamin B12 [15% NRV]) too. Tesco also offer a similar type of product.

Growers Harvest are a brand found only at Tesco which is 69kcal per 250ml and has added calcium, potassium iodide, vitamin B12, riboflavin and vitamin D2. Another brand called Wicked Kitchen has a soya product termed as a Barista Blend.

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Anderson, J.W., Johnstone, B.M., Cook-Newell, M.E. (1995) Meta-analysis of the effects of soy protein intake on serum lipids. N. Engl. J. Med. 333 pp. 276–82.

Banerjee, S., Li, Y., Wang, Z., Sarkar, F.H. (2008). Multi-targeted therapy of cancer by genistein. Cancer Lett. 269 pp. 226–42.

Lawrence, S. E., Lopetcharat, K. and Drake, M.A. (2016), Preference Mapping of Soymilk with Different U.S. Consumers. Journal of Food Science, 81: S463–S476. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.13182

Lydeking-Olsen, E., Beck-Jensen, J.-E., Setchell, K.D.R., Holm-Jensen, T. (2004) Soymilk or progesterone for prevention of bone loss: a 2 year randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Eur. J. Nutr. 43 pp. 246–57

Messina, M., Hughes, C. (2003) Efficacy of soyfoods and soybean isoflavone supplements for alleviating menopausal symptoms is positively related to initial hot flush frequency. J. Med. Food 6 pp. 1–11.

Prakash, D., Upadhyay, G., Singh, B.N., Singh, H.B. (2007) Antioxidant and free radical-scavenging activities of seeds and agri-wastes of some varieties of soybean (Glycine max). Food Chem. 104 pp. 783–90.

Soyfoods Association Of North America. (2015). Sales by product type, 1996–2011. Soyfoods Association of North America, Washington, DC, USA. Available from: http://www.soyfoods.org/wp-content/uploads/SANA-sales-data-1996-2011-for-web.pdf. Accessed: January 02, 2016.

Villegas, B., Carbonell, I., Costell, E. (2009) Acceptability of milk and soymilk vanilla beverages: demographics consumption frequency and sensory aspects. Food Sci. Tech. Intl. 15(2) pp. 203–10.

Weidner, C., Krempf, M., Bard, J., Cazaubiel, M., Bell, D. (2008) Cholesterol-lowering effect of soy drink enriched with plant sterols in a French population with moderate hypercholesterolaemia. Lipid Health Dis. 7 pp. 35–42.

Wong, W.W., Smith, E.O., Stuff, J.E., Hachey, D.L., Heird, W.C., Pownell, H.J. (1998). Cholesterol lowering effect of soy protein in normocholesterolaemic and hypercholesterolaemic men. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 68:1385S–9S.

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