New Food Products: Vitasoy Complete

Vitasoy Complete has all the benefits of soy plus added fiber, calcium and vitamins. One key deficiency is refrigeration.

By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

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Soy, a legume like the pea, has been used in Asian markets much longer and more successfully than it has in the U.S. It has been suggested that soy is the most widely eaten plant in world. Not only is soy a complete protein, the planting of this legume helps to restore soil nutrients.

Beverages lead the soy product categories in terms of new launches, growing 67 percent between 2002 and 2004. While not all of these products have soy as a primary ingredient, soy’s importance in them is evident. Vitasoy International Holdings Ltd. was founded in the 1940s when malnutrition-causing diseases were proliferating in Hong Kong. Dr. K.S. Lo’s answer to the situation was to develop a nutritious, high-protein and vitamin-rich soybean milk.

Fast-forward 60 years and Vitasoy is still spreading the gospel of soy and indeed doing it internationally. Its latest effort is Vitasoy Complete, a two-flavor (regular and vanilla) line of beverages that don’t stop at the considerable health benefits of soymilk. The company has fortified these drinks with extra fiber, calcium and vitamins A, D and B12. Vitasoy has practically transformed soymilk into a sports beverage.

Understanding the marketplace

Soy-based beverages provide an alternative protein source for consumers who have given up part or all of the consumption of animal-based proteins. In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration allowed food suppliers to advertise soy-based foods with a heart-healthy claim after studies showed that eating soy might help lower the risk of heart disease. While other claims associated with soy -- such as a natural estrogen replacement and a cancer-fighter -- have been suggested, the only proven claim is heart health. The claim led to an invigorated pace of soymilk incorporation into individual diets and a broader consumer mindset. Sales in recent years have been vigorous.

While market growth for all soy-based foods and drinks was measured at 17 percent between 2001 and 2002, growth slowed to 12 percent in 2003 and 6 percent in 2004, according to Mintel International. Soy-based dairy alternatives are estimated to be about $410 million, excluding Wal-Mart and Trader Joe’s, according to Information Resources Inc.

Market leaders include Dean Foods (its White Wave division produces Silk) and 8th Continent (a join venture between DuPont and General Mills). Together, they hold about 80 percent of the U.S. market. These companies are playing in the part of the marketplace that is growing in the U.S.: refrigerated beverages.

Some believe the low-carbohydrate craze of the past year was part of the slowdown in sales. Others suggest soy and soy foods have had cycles such as this, even in their brief 20-year history. Many observers believe a key reason for the recent growth has been the movement of soymilk products from shelf stable (aseptic) packaging to the refrigerated dairy section.

Vitasoy is a leading global player in the nonrefrigerated soy beverage business. But faced with a U.S. market that appears to be leaning toward refrigerated products, Vitasoy and also Hain announced in December 2004 they were exiting the U.S. refrigerated soymilk market. As of September 2004, soymilk represented 38 percent of Vitasoy’s business. Hong Kong is Vitasoy’s largest market (66 percent) while North America represents about 20 percent of sales.

Vitasoy decided more research and development was required. The concept of developing new products that have proprietary technology and unique value is felt to be key to improved sales and brand-building efforts. The launch of Vitasoy Complete is one of the tools in this effort. The product has been designed to hit on a number of areas of identified consumer wants and needs: calcium, fiber, low net carbohydrates, no cholesterol or saturated fats, plenty of vitamins and minerals and reasonable calorie levels.

Vitasoy is using the concept of focused product innovation to leverage its unique proposition in the shelf-stable soymilk market. The aseptic packaging allows ease of storage and portability. This may be a form not well embraced at the moment in the U.S. market, but it may yet be viable as the multicultural markets of the U.S. continue to grow.

Consumers indicate they are trying to eat healthier and care about food components like calcium; yet some behaviors, like buying dairy or dairy replacements from the refrigerated section, are routines that are difficult to shift.

Building on nutrients is a strategy that many are taking. Can a product that offers a solution to many of the nutrition gaps find an audience in a form that is not always familiar?

Insights

A wide range of our own studies have shown soy to have a significantly negative impact on concept acceptability among the general testing population. (Much of this conclusion comes from our Drink It!, Healthy You! and It!s Convenient studies, which integrate 30 conjoint studies to generate a database that can be used to understand the experience of foods.) This negative perception has been fairly broad and general.

As a result, most of the following observations and conclusions were drawn from studies among people who are positive to the idea of soy. Mintel suggests that among all consumers the number likely to buy soy-based versions of their popular food and drinks is about 27 percent (down from 30 percent in 2002) with a gender split of 30 percent for women and 23 percent for men.

Among health fanatics and those interested in non-animal products, “creamy” is a well accepted concept for soy beverages. Fiber, isoflavones, and Omega-3 fatty acids are all positives. Just as important are what’s missing: lactose and cholesterol. Soymilk also is perceived to be highly nutritious.

The key trends in soymilk are taste and healthfulness.

Taste: Taste is not expected to be the key driver for consumers who are in the category. Soymilk that is chilled is believed to taste best. Therefore, when soymilk starts out refrigerated (at point of purchase) there is a taste halo conferred on the product. Traditional flavors like chocolate and vanilla are most popular, with secondary opportunities in the nut and rich flavor sectors (like caramel, butterscotch, etc.)
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