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.)

Healthfulness: This is emerging as a top driver across many segments. It is both top-of-mind for newcomers to the category and a deep-set belief within the cadre of soymilk consumers. All natural, heart healthy, high protein, high fiber, low carbohydrate and low fat are descriptors driving consumer interest. More functional factors are calcium, folic acid, amino acids and beta carotene.

The experience

Vitasoy Complete is available in both original and vanilla flavors. It is packaged in an aseptic carton, which is sized at 32 oz. and carries a retail price of approximately $1.99. The package carries a lot of information, including the name in a banner across the top of the package, the flavor, no artificial sweeteners and 2 g net carbs. A glass with soymilk and a measuring tape suggesting shapeliness of the glass (and you) appears in the bottom half of the package, along with a seal that emphasizes whole organic soybeans are used in this product. A green banner announces that the product is calcium- and fiber-fortified.

Reading the packaging and understanding what this product is trying to be is important. This is a nutritional product. It may be familiar to those who consume soymilk but can be foreign to those who do not. On the back panel, Vitasoy congratulates the consumer for drinking the most nutritionally complete beverage ever made. The carton tells you it has everything a person wants in soymilk and more. The back panel tells you that it has 3.5 times fewer carbs than the leading brand of plain soymilk. Calories are lower than regular soymilk by a third. Vitasoy has half the fat and four times the fiber of the leader. The package tells us that amount of fiber is more than a full serving of oatmeal.

The aseptic package opens easily and pours nicely from a plastic spout. The product has a low, pleasant aroma. Some of our tasters called the aroma “clean.” The texture of the beverage was felt to be thin. Sweet tasting and thin were the predominant observations.

Most tasters felt they picked up a slightly beany note, which they expected since this was a non-flavored version of soymilk. There was a gritty quality and some of our tasters who are familiar with soymilk believed it came from the added calcium. The thin texture was explained by the lack of added sugars, which is part of the low-carb claim.

With all of its features and benefits, Vitasoy Complete did not get any of our committed soymilk consumers to switch brands. They thought the product was innovative. But they felt there was too much taste trade-off to move to this product as a regular dairy substitute.

Vitasoy’s ingredient statement is filtered water, organic whole soybeans, acacia gum, tricalcium phosphate, organic cane juice, natural flavors salt, gum and vitamins. At 70 calories for an 8 oz. glass, a person is getting a lot of benefits. You get 30 percent of your calcium, 20 percent of your vitamin D and 15-20 percent of the B vitamins, plus 6 g of protein and 14 percent of the daily value of fiber.

Does the product deliver?

This soymilk is indeed Complete. When one thinks about using this beverage to make a blended morning smoothie, the idea of getting so many benefits is appealing. Drinking this straight is another story, due to the thin texture and the taste trade-offs.

But could this be used as a dairy substitute in recipes? Maybe. Why not the dairy ingredient in a casserole? How about in an instant pudding? All the benefits of a dairy product and more! There could be a place in food prep and cooking for a product this complete.

How to make the idea bigger

The product delivers on the promise, but has some gaps. The grittiness and thinness mean you must be fairly committed to soymilk and the added benefits to drink this product straight. Since it is in an aseptic package and Vitasoy is exiting the refrigerated market, producing a product with added benefits that works for food preparation might be fine.

The market that Vitasoy is going after is the athlete, weekend warrior, dieter or active person who needs more of the good stuff more often. The product is currently targeting five major health areas: heart disease, digestion, bone health, possible estrogen benefits and circulatory.

For this idea to be bigger, Vitasoy needs to find a way to reach the market that will appreciate the convenience of all of these benefits in an easy-to-use and very natural form. Additionally, the company needs to stay with the curve on the functional benefits that their target market is looking for.

This is not a product for the occasional soymilk consumer. It will not bring people who find current soymilks unsatisfying into to the usage arena. But the innovative incorporation of so many benefits is admirable.

Rating: The product and package deliver on the promises.

Market Potential: This may not help Vitasoy get a beachhead in this category. Others will follow with the same benefits. It will then be a contest to see who does it better.

For the U.S. market, the key players in the refrigerated section will look at these elements and watch to see which ones sell; then they will incorporate the most appealing attributes. Vitasoy’s innovation will be adopted by others who have a larger share of the consumer mind in the U.S.

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