The rising popularity of soyfoods in the U.S. is undeniable. Sales are climbing by 20 percent a year for soy flour, soy milk, tofu and so-called "meat analogs" -- burgers and brats that taste like meat, but are made from soybeans.
Such products call for the growing of specialty beans. And that led to the opening of new value-added markets for farmers, who received premium prices.
But before those specialty beans became specialty products, they simply were seeds in a lab, where scientists searched for traits the food industry wanted for its next "best seller."
Nancy Crowfoot has this "prequel" to the soyfoods story.
Deep in the basement of this Iowa State University agronomy building, in cold storage, are literally thousands of on-going seed research projects. Among the projects are food-grade soybeans where there are efforts underway to breed certain traits the food industry wants for soyfoods.
The work here at Iowa State constitutes the largest, publicly funded, food-grade soybean research facility in the country.
Walt Fehr, Charles F. Curtiss Distiguished Professor in Agriculture, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa: "Each year, we evaluate about 12,000 potential new varieties of soybeans for the food grade market, only a handful of which ultimately make it to the market."
Walt Fehr, a professor of agriculture and a plant breeder, has seen many plant breeding possibilities become realities for the food industry. His work, which started at Iowa State as a grad student in the 1960s, has included: developing a bean with a low saturated fat content for cooking oil; reducing the "beany" flavor of the bean for use in products like soymilk; and lowering the linolenic acid content so the soybeans don't have to be hydrogenated to be processed into cooking oil. Hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids -- a substance linked to heart disease.
But the first major food-grade variety Fehr developed was in the 1970s -- for the tofu market.
Walt Fehr, Charles F. Curtiss Distiguished Professor in Agriculture, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa: "Vinton 81 was the first, I would say, blockbuster that we had for the tofu market."
The bean had a higher protein content than a conventional soybean and was larger in size. It also had a yellow -- or clear -- hilum instead of the typical black mark on the bean, so it wouldn't affect the desired all white color of the tofu.
Japanese tofu manufacturers loved it, and visited Iowa many times to see the fields and meet Dr. Fehr, the plant breeder. It still is a popular bean to the Japanese today, although there are now higher yielding varieties available with the same characteristics.
Walt Fehr, Charles F. Curtiss Distiguished Professor in Agriculture, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa: "After you get beyond those three characteristics it's really up to each food company to decide whether the variety is one they like or they don't. So last year, as an example, we had 64 different varieties being used in the food industry by somebody for something and we don't know exactly why there are 64 different selections of the varieties that we have available. But that is just the nature of the food industry."
The nature of the food industry today is spurring research not just at public universities like Iowa State but in the private sector at companies like Pioneer, headquartered near Des Moines.
Pioneer has always had commodity beans that went to the food-grade oil market. But in the last 10 to 15 years, the company has also worked on specific varieties that have been used, for example, in soymilk, tofu and low saturated oil and an oil that wouldn't need hydrogenation.
Dennis Byron, Vice President for Crop Development, Pioneer, Johnston, IA: "We began working on developing varieties with low linolenic fatty acids in 1991. We have released five varieties in the past, none of which caught on in a very large way. But now with the renewed interest in low linolenic type oils there is much greater interest in that. We've increased our program in developing varieties with that oil type."
The "renewed" interest in low linolenic is due to the Food and Drug Administration's requirement that by 2006, food manufacturers must list the amount of trans fat on their packaging labels.
While Pioneer started its work with 2% linolenic germplasm licensed from Iowa State University, Walt Fehr and his colleague, Earl Hammond in the food science department, kept working to reduce the level further. And this year released a germplasm variety with 1% linolenic acid.
The 1% linolenic oil is being used by the University's food service.
Erica Beirman, Dining Hall Manager, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa: "We were worried about the longevity of the product, if it would last as long as our other oil. We were worried about the flavor, if it changed the flavor of our products and then overall quality of our products to make sure that they didn't change the flavor. And our students didn't notice."
The low linolenic bean and cooking oil may be a success story for both science and the food industry. But science can't always give the food industry what it wants ... at least not always in a timely fashion.
Dennis Byron, Pioneer: "Well, one of the requests that we've received over the last few years is to develop a soybean that would have a very bland taste. For us to remove these tastes and those flavors would require a lot of changes in the compounds that soybeans naturally have."
It may be a difficult task, but Byron says Pioneer, in partnership with a food ingredient company, has identified flavor as a strategic area of its research.
He adds some industry requests for plant characteristics would be easier through biotechnology where a certain gene is inserted into a plant rather than bred into it.
But Iowa State's Walt Fehr, who also happens to be the Director of the schools' Office of Biotechnology, notes biotech food products are not yet welcomed by many consumers in some parts of the world, like Japan and Europe.
Whether its conventional breeding or biotechnology, as long as science prepares to meet the challenges the food industry presents, it seems likely there will be new soy products and soyfoods on the grocery shelves for years to come.
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.