Plant Protein – Popularity and Perceptions

Plant Protein – Popularity and Perceptions

March 28, 2018
Shari Steinbach

The market for plant-based products and proteins is growing. In 2017, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives in the United States grew 8.1%, topping $3.1 billion in sales, according to Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute.  In addition to health attributes, younger consumers are embracing plant-forward products also based on environmental concerns. As the trends of plant-forward eating and protein converge, retail dietitians may face challenges in providing guidance to shoppers in light of common misperceptions about popular plant proteins like soy. Below are some prevalent myths followed by the facts on soy to help address consumer questions.

  • Myth: The quality of soy protein is inferior.  

Fact: Soy protein is comparable in protein quality to milk and eggs, and the only commercially-viable, plant-based source that is a high-quality, complete protein. Also, research supports the effectiveness of soy protein to promote and maintain lean body mass.

  • Myth: The isoflavones in soyfoods act as estrogen in the body, causing hormone imbalances and numerous health issues.

Fact:  The chemical structures of isoflavones and hormonal estrogen are similar, however, isoflavones do not bind to estrogen receptors the same way as hormonal estrogen and they function differently in the human body. 1 Also, studies with humans reveal that neither soyfoods nor isoflavone supplements affect markers or indicators of breast cancer risk in healthy women or those with breast cancer. Both the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) have determined that soyfoods are safe for breast cancer patients.

  • Myth: The estrogen-like effects of isoflavones present feminizing effects on men.

Fact: Recent reviews and meta-analyses report no increases in circulating estrogen and no decreases in testosterone levels in men. The limited case reports in humans, such as with gynecomastia, were due to an extremely high soy intake and preexisting abnormal testosterone levels.

  • Myth: All soy is genetically modified.

Fact: More than 90 percent of all soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. The majority of soybeans grown in the United States are used for animal feed and soybean oil. Slightly less than one percent of soybeans grown in the United States for human consumption is non-GMO. Companies like DuPont offer soy protein ingredients that are either Identity Preserved, Non-Genetically Modified (IP, Non-GM) or conventional Genetically Modified (GM) soybeans.

  • Myth: Many people cannot consume products containing soy because it is one of the top allergens.

Fact: While soy is one of the eight most common allergies, only 0.4 percent of children and 0.2 percent of adults have an allergy to soy. Seventy percent of children with soy allergies outgrow them by age 10. 2

  • Myth: Processed soy does not provide the same benefits as whole soy.

Fact: Soy is an excellent source of many nutrients, whether you get it from edamame, tofu, soymilk or a beverage, nutrition bar or vegetarian sausage patty formulated with isolated soy protein or soy protein concentrate. 

Emerging research is also linking the benefits of soy protein to supporting liver health, an increase in gut microbial diversity and the management of conditions related to metabolic syndrome. These studies will serve to keep shoppers interested in plant proteins and they will seek guidance and solutions from retail RDNs.

  1. Messina, M., Soyfoods, isoflavones and the health of postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr., 2014 Jul; 100 Suppl 1:423S-30S.
  2. Savage J.H., Kaeding A.J., Matsui E.C., Wood R.A., The natural history of soy allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol., 2010; 125:683-86.