Soymilk Gets Fresh:

Now Sold in Supermarkets, It May Put Dairy Cows Out of Business

Once reserved for sandal-clad hippies, soymilk is now officially mainstream, as common in a conventional supermarket as in health food stores. Soymilk’s popularity has soared since the health benefits of soy have been widely publicized, and its taste was reformulated in recent years to appeal to Americans. It is a far cry from what detractors once cited as a grainy texture and "beany" flavor. Now soymilk is even available in the dairy case next to cow’s milk, and shares the same type of gable-top packaging.

Soy products, including soymilk, have proven effectiveness in preventing heart disease and some forms of cancer.© Brian Howard

While placement in the refrigerator case means that the soymilk is freshly made, it doesn’t mean that there’s much difference nutritionally to its aseptically packaged cousins. Mary Adams, marketing director for soymilk-maker White Wave (which was recently acquired by Dean Foods) says fresh soymilk offers consumers "the best taste" and more convenience, since "the refrigerator case is where people shop."

It’s true that not all soymilks are created equal. There is variety in the price, taste, quality and environmental impact of soymilks. Not in question, however, is the fact that soymilk is packed with beneficial nutrients and a healthy dose of protein. "Soymilk, along with other soy foods, contains phytochemicals called isoflavones, shown in hundreds of studies to be effective in preventing heart disease and several forms of cancer, including breast and ovarian cancer," says holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil. Soymilk naturally contains B-vitamins and iron. Many soymilks also include added vitamins and minerals, especially calcium.

The first soymilk to be sold nationally in the supermarket refrigerated section was White Wave’s Silk, which makes up about 75 percent of the $420 million annual market. Silk was soon followed by Vitasoy and Hain Celestial Group’s Soy Dream, both of which had been offered in aseptic packages. Hain Celestial’s Westsoy offers fresh soy shakes and lattes. White Wave also sells Sun Soy, a lower-priced and sweeter fresh soymilk. Aiming at a broad, mainstream market, DuPont and General Mills teamed up with other players to produce 8th Continent fresh soymilk.

How Sweet It Is

Interestingly, sweetness has been key to soymilk’s new popularity, following in the trend of other health foods, such as yogurt. It wasn’t until sugar was added that yogurt became the snack-food staple it is in the U.S., and it appears that soymilk is following a similar path. 8th Continent soymilk is substantially sweetened, includes artificial flavors and is not a vegan product. Marketing Director Peter Killilea of 8th Continent says such additives are used because "taste is the number one barrier to people eating better. If people don’t like the taste, they won’t drink it." Most flavored soymilks, and even some that are labeled "plain," contain added sugar, so check your labels.

From vanilla and chocolate, to more exotic flavors such as coffee and eggnog, fresh soymilks now come in more varieties than the cow’s milk they often replace. Soymilk has become so ubiquitous that some in the industry have begun to conduct soymilk "tastings," coming up with whole new vocabularies to describe the various flavors and formulations. In a joint venture between Vitasoy and wine sommeliers Debbie Zachareas and Jonathan Waters, the scent, taste and aftertastes of soymilks were characterized as combinations of flavors like chestnut, macadamia, black tea, banana, oatmeal, eggnog and malt. "Some might think of this as hoity-toity," says Waters. "But we can help people expand their food tastes, and make the unknown seem familiar."

It’s not only what’s inside the soymilk that counts, however. 8th Continent uses all-plastic bottles that are easily reusable or recyclable. Plastics are far more commonly recycled than aseptic or gable-top cartons, although there is certainly an environmental and social footprint in their production. White Wave purchases wind-energy credits for 100 percent of its manufacturing and operations, making it the largest company in America to do so.

All soymilks mentioned above use non-genetically modified soybeans, and Silk, Vitasoy and Soy Dream are completely organic. Unlike the other brands, 8th Continent does not use whole soybeans. The company uses the soy protein Solae, which it claims makes the flavor more appealing to people less likely to enjoy the flavor of soymilk. However, some health food experts argue that this processing of soy can challenge the digestive system.

Not everyone is pleased with the rise of fresh soymilk’s popularity, however. Celeste Kukla of Edensoy says her company chose not to sell refrigerated soymilks because of "the environmental issue." Kukla says, "Refrigerated soymilks use enormous amounts of energy, resulting in more greenhouse gases." White Wave’s Adams says she hopes fresh soymilks will help Americans eat healthier and move towards a more plant-based diet.

Make Your Own

Of course you can always control exactly what’s in your soymilk (and save money) if you make it at home, in the traditional Asian style. Rebecca Wood, an award-winning natural foods author and consultant, recommends these simple steps to make soymilk in your own kitchen. "Soak soybeans (about six hours) to rid them of the anti-nutrient trypsin inhibitors, coarsely grind them, add water, bring to a boil, strain out the dregs and then simmer the resulting milk for seven minutes. Season it to taste with a sweetener, vanilla and a dash of ginger."

Also recommended to maximize creaminess is filtering fresh soymilk through a "gold" permanent coffee filter. There are also many different kinds of soymilk-making machines that will process the beans automatically. They range in price from $30 to $300 or more, and are available in most health food stores.

Once you have soymilk on hand, there is a lot more to do with it than just pour it over your cereal or drink it by the glass. Soymilk can be used as a cup-for-cup replacement for cow’s milk in most recipes. "For the most complex and satisfying flavor, use a high-quality soymilk that uses only filtered water and organic soybeans, and use whole rather than reduced-fat soymilks," recommends Wood. "Use plain, unsweetened soymilk in soups, sauces, gravies, casseroles and quickbreads." It’s not a good idea to freeze soymilk, since it tends to separate. Sweetened and flavored soymilks can be used in desserts.

Now that there’s a soymilk out there for every palate, it’s easy to completely eliminate cow’s milk from your cereal, your cooking and even your hot chocolate.

STARRE VARTAN is a freelance writer who always cooks with soymilk.