Spotlight on ... Soya

This page has been developed to assist those researching and those with a general interest in the soya plant and its products. Soya plant has become very topical in recent years with the development of new technologies in the fields of genetics and high impact farming to supply an ever more demanding global market.

Hopefully all the information you require can be found on these web-pages; if not please take time to look through the Publications, Useful Websites and Further Information sections.

History of Soya

The soya plant (Glycine max) was cultivated in China before 3000 B.C., and was classified as one of the five sacred crops. The first written record of its use is in 2200 B.C. farming manual advising Chinese farmers how to get the best from their crop. Missionaries brought soya to Europe in the 17th Century but climatic and soil conditions were unsatisfactory producing poor yields. Soya was introduced in the USA in the early 19th Century (originally arriving as ballast aboard returning clipper ships), but soya farming in the USA only expanded dramatically after World War II, when production in China slowed.

Cultivation of Soya

Soya is a frost-sensitive summer annual, and it takes about 75-80 days for the beans to fully mature; plants may reach one metre high, but only the beans of the soya plant are harvested. The plant produces trifoliate leaves and small white to purple flowers found close to the stem. Seeds are borne in hairy pods that grow in clusters of three to five; each pod contains two or three seeds, which resemble peas. Once the seeds are mature, the upright vine and foliage begin to shrivel and the leaves fall away. Harvesting by machine must be completed before the pods shatter. The seed are variable in colour from light yellow to green to black. Soya is a legume, like peas, which means it has a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria allowing the plant to fix nitrogen from the air and can be used in crop rotation systems as a soil nitrogen replacer.

Roundup® and other non-selective herbicides are used extensively for weed control in soya cultivation, but they cannot be applied to weeds within the crop because they will kill the soya plants as well as the weeds. Using biotechnology, plants have been developed that are tolerant to Roundup® herbicide; farmers are able to spray soya crops during the growing season.

Soya is now a global staple food and about 220 million tonnes of beans produced annually, mainly in the United States (71%), Brazil (58%) and Argentina (45%). Individual farmer's crops are bulked before export. European oil mills process about 16 million tonnes of soya beans annually, mainly imported from the USA and Brazil. Soya beans and their products account for 27% of US agricultural exports to the EU and were worth more than $2.5 billion 2004.

Soya as a Food Ingredient

About two-thirds of all manufactured food products contain derivatives or ingredients made from soya. Studies suggest that intake of soya in the UK is between 1-3.5g per day.

Before soya can be used in food products the beans have to be cleansed, cracked, dehulled and rolled into flakes, which rupture the oil cells for easy extraction. As soya oil, it is extracted using a food-grade solvent (n-hexane) for production of vegetable oil and spreads. In this form, soya is used in salad dressings and mayonnaise; and as a vegetable fat for baking and frying. Lecithin from soya is an emulsifier in some chocolate, breakfast cereals, ice cream, sweets and spreads. Soya oil is also used in a wide variety of non-food products, for example,  soap, biological detergents, plastics, and CFC-free cooling agents; the derivative glycerine is used in the manufacture of emulsifiers (E322) for skin cream and softeners for non-animal gelatin capsules.

Soya flours were developed in the 1940s by grinding and screening defatted flakes; these flours are used to extend the shelf-life of many products and improve the colour of pastry crusts. The flour is gluten-free, which means it can be used to replace wheat or rye flours in bread-making and other baked products. Mixed with ordinary flour at about 15%, soya gives dense bread with a nutty flavour and moist quality.

Textured soy protein (TSP or TVP) is made using a process called extrusion cooking. Defatted soya flour and water are cooked at a high temperature, which converts the water to steam. On exiting the extruder, the steam escapes and produces fibrous shapes of soya. It is available for home cooking as a dried, granular product and in chunk-sized pieces for rehydrating and to replace meat when mixed with stock. TVP is also fortified with vitamin B-12.

Methods were developed to produce isolated soya proteins in the 1950s, which are used for biscuits, sweets, diet drinks, pasta and a variety of frozen foods. Soya protein improves the consistency of meat products and it is added to many foods including pizzas, noodles, bread and foods for special dietary needs, for example, soya drinks, which serve as a substitute for cows’ milk for those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk. Various cheese- and other milk- and meat-substitute products, such as miso, tofu and tempeh, can be made by fermenting soya protein. In addition, naturally-brewed soya sauce uses a starter culture called koji, a member of the Aspergillus family, mixed with soya beans and wheat.

Soya and Allergies

Soya is considered an important potential food allergen because of the number of soya products. The basis of the allergy is the protein found within the bean but humans can also react badly to the polyunsaturated fatty oils. Soya is listed by the FDA (Food and Drug Association of the USA) as a major food allergen, and thus should be included on food allergy advice on labelling under the Food Allergy Labelling Consumer Protection Act. It is also listed in annex IIIa of the EU directive on labelling of foods and, in 2005, EU Labelling Directive 2000/13/EC required that “pre-packed food sold in the UK or the rest of the European Union (EU) show clearly on the label if it contains soya (or if one of its ingredients)”.


An allergic reaction to soya can elicit a variety of symptoms including vomiting, colitis, diarrhea, anaemia and irritability. People with an allergy to soya or soya-containing products may also have an allergy to peanuts, peas, lentils, rye or barley flour. The allergy is most commonly found in children who exhibit eczema (1-4% of eczema linked with a food allergy reacts on exposure to soya); they usually grow out of it by the age of two but the allergy is also found in one in 50 of the adult population. Soya can be fed to infants who, for example, have a milk allergy but it is essential to get a recommendation from your General Practitioner before doing so.

 Soya intolerance is not the same as a soya allergy. 

Soya in Nutrition

The soya bean is mainly composed of oil (~20%) and proteins (~40%). The rest of the bean is carbohydrate and ash (non aqueous residue that remains complete after a soya bean has been burned).

Soya protein is the only vegetable source of complete protein, of a quality comparable to meat and eggs, which contains all the essential amino acids required by humans and animals. It also contains linoleic (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), both polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential nutrients but also increasingly recognised to reduce the risk of chronic age-related diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. These nutrients can also contribute to the prevention of hair loss and wound healing. The soya bean is free from cholesterol and soya protein reduces cholesterol levels in hyper-cholesteroaemic people.

Soya beans and the foods made from them are also rich in iron, B vitamins, calcium and zinc. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorised the use of labels on soya food products stating that soya can reduce the risk of heart disease. whilst EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority – currently allows similar claims to be printed on food packaging. (

Soya and Health


Soya is an important source of a group of the non-nutrients, the isoflavones, a type of plant oestrogen. These compounds have structural and functional similarities to the natural oestrogenic hormones known as phytoestrogens. Examples include daidzein and genistein, which are present at levels around 3mg/100g wet weight in raw beans. In soya flour (defatted and whole) isoflavone levels range between 120-340mg/100g and in soya protein levels range form 88-164mg/100g. The highest reported amounts of isoflavones are found in hypercotyl soya flours with levels from 542-851mg/ 100g. These chemicals can behave like a very weak form of oestrogen.

Epidemiological studies (primarily from Japan, where soya consumption is high) suggest a beneficial, protective effect for the phytoestrogens against certain sex hormone-dependent cancers including prostate cancer. Phytoestrogens are present in a wide range of food plants including nuts, seeds, vegetables, berries and soya. They are also found in higher concentrations in herbs such as sage leaves and rose family plants and are often sold as herbal remedies for women suffering from gynaecological or reproductive issues.

Evidence suggests phytoestrogens may have deleterious effects on reproductive efficiency when consumed by animals but there is no evidence for similar effects in humans. Phytoestrogens can also behave in ways other to oestrogen. At high concentrations phytoestrogens can block oestrogen receptors in the body, whilst act like oestrogen at low concentrations. It is also thought that phytoestrogens may affect communication between cells, acting as a signal molecule to prevent the formation of tumours in blood vessels. Work is under way that will give a better understanding of how the phytoestrogens in soya behave in humans, since these actions are complex and it is not entirely understood whether they are beneficial or detrimental.

Babies may be given soya-based formula milks for one of the following reasons: (1) a small number of babies cannot tolerate cows' milk; (2) some parents choose for themselves to feed their baby soya-based formulae because they have a family history of allergy; (3) soya-based formulae are made entirely from plants and this makes them acceptable to vegans and other groups who do not want to use feeds based on cows' milk. At present there is no evidence that phytoestrogens in soya-based formulae cause any problems, nor is there evidence of significant benefit.

A report published by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Foodstressed “that soya-based formulas should only be used to ensure adequate nutrition in a small number of cases, such as in infants who have cow's milk intolerance, and refuse extensively hydrolysed formulas, or for vegan mothers who are unable to breastfeed, or choose not to. You should therefore seek advice from your midwife, health visitor, or GP, before using soya formula milk.”

For  more information please visit the Food Standards Agency website:

Bone health

There is evidence to suggest that phytoestrogens help prevent osteoporosis, thinning of the bones associated with ageing, particularly in women after the menopause. Soya foods are not naturally high in calcium but it is added to soya products as a coagulating agent and soya proteins are thought to be effective at promoting bone formation and the retention of calcium within the human body ; both of which are important in bone health.


Regular intake of soya correlates with a reduced number of hot flushes a day associated with the menopause, which is thought to be because of the isoflavone content. Recommended amounts include one glass of soya milk, two slices of soya bread, one small soya yoghurt or 100g tofu or TVP two to three times a day; or the equivalent of 40-80mg of isoflavones daily.


Evidence for soya causing breast cancer or reducing the risk of breast cancer is scarce and inconclusive. Conversely, research from the USA supports an inverse relationship between the intake of non-fermented soya products and prostate cancer. Other studies suggest that frequent consumption (> once a day) of soymilk is associated with a reduction in prostate cancer risk” For more information on the studies conducted visit the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website.


Soya is cholesterol-free and the proteins found in soya help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood system. The fats in soya are polyunsaturated which means that they do not contribute to cholesterol intake. Other compounds, such as the isoflavones, prevent atherosclerosis (an inflammatory response occurring in the walls of the arteries). By reducing cholesterol, some researchers suggest that soya can reduce the risk of other disorders such as heart disease and high blood pressure , both risk factors in the development of cardiovascular disease.

Genetically-engineered soya

The Technology

Monsanto, the US-based multinational speciality chemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural company, has developed a soya bean plant that is genetically-engineered to be resistant to the Monsanto herbicide, Roundup®, containing the ingredient glyphosate. In traditional soya varieties, Roundup® blocks the build-up of essential substances for growth of the soya plant, but the modified plant, Roundup ReadyTM produces a new type of protein enabling it to circumvent this inhibitor. The genetically modified plant is therefore not sensitive to the glyphosate and can grow when Roundup® is applied. One of the claimed advantages of using Roundup ReadyTM soya beans is that weeds can be controlled after the young beans have started to grow, with just one herbicide. Monsanto estimate that around one third less herbicide overall can be used with this variety compared with conventional crops.

Although genetically-modified (GM) soya is indistinguishable from conventional beans in composition, nutrition and processing characteristics a US company, Genetic ID, claims to have a test that can detect the genetic alteration, but this method will only work prior to processing. The altered protein is not found in soya oil or lecithin; protein traces in soya meal are inactivated during processing. People who are allergic to conventional soya products are also allergic to genetically-modified soya products although researchers are working to create different varieties of GM soya including one that will be allergen free and another that could prevent heart attacks.

There are other varieties of GM soya produced by companies other than Monsanto. For example the A2704-12 strain developed by Bayer which is resistant to a herbicide, glufosinate ammonium, and is mainly used in animal feeds but has also been approved for human consumption.


Oversight of this technology and other genetic modification techniques is provided by the Department of Agriculture, the Food & Drug Administration in the USA and the Environmental Protection Agency. FDA ensures the safety of foods developed by genetic engineering through science-based risk evaluations. This requires developers of foods from modified plants to address whether known allergens have been transferred to the modified product; to demonstrate that the new food does not contain increased levels of previously-known toxic substances or new hazardous substances; and that the nutritional value of the product has not been compromised.

According to EU regulation ((EC) 50/2000) GM additive and GM flavourings have to be labelled and GM soya labelling is also compulsory under the (EC) 49/2000 regulation.

The US Environmental Protection Agency approved use of Roundup® herbicide with herbicide-tolerant soya beans was granted in 1995. The EU issued an import licence according to EC directive 90/220 (product release directive) in Spring 1996 - although this approval is restricted to import and processing; the importation of the Bayer soya bean into Europe was approved September 2008 to help alleviate a shortage of animal feeds, this approval will last 10 years. It has also been approved by Japan, Argentina and Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and is approved as food and/or feed in China, Columbia, The European Union member states and in Paraguay.

The UKs policy concerning GM crops can be found at:

Production, Processing and Labelling

Of the 30 million hectares of soya planted in the US in 1999, 57% of the export crop was Monsanto’s Roundup Ready© soya. Monsanto suggested that segregating beans for mass markets would be economically and physically impractical for farmers, grain companies and shippers. The arrival of deliveries of mixed GM and traditional soya beans in Europe (9 million tonnes out of a total European market of 13-14 million tonnes) at the time resulted in widespread discussion about the safety and labelling of genetically-engineered ingredients in foods.

The UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes stated in 1997 that "the GM soya was equivalent to that of non-GM soya and that there were no unintended effects as a result of the genetic modification."

The US Institute of Food Technologists comments that “food labels have been established to provide ‘material information’ about a product, such as ingredients and nutrition information, or warnings about a health risk. Since genetically-modified foods do not pose any new or unique risks, such labels would not provide health or safety information and could mislead by implying that there is a risk”.

Commodity crops such as soya are traded on the international markets in huge amounts. The UK imported 780,000 tonnes of soya in 2008; in 2007 the EU imported 24.8 million tonnes of soya meal, 15.5 million tonnes of soya bean and almost one million tonnes of soya oil. Segregating of commodity crops requires separate production and handling facilities at every stage of the supply chain. The UK bread-baking industry has bought some supplies of 'identity-preserved' conventional soya from Canada, and the frozen-food retailer Iceland is among many UK retailers avoiding the use of genetically-modified soya in their own-label products. As of 2004 Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, Tesco, Morrison’s and the Co-op state that they have not stocked GM containing products.

Agreement was reached on an EC Regulation (1139/98) on the labelling of (GM) soya and maize. This required all food products containing GM soya ingredients to be clearly labelled. Declarations appear in either the ingredients listing, for example, in relation to soya ingredients as follows: soya flour (produced from genetically modified soya); or soya (genetically modified) flour; or soya* flour; as a footnote, which may be no smaller than the list of ingredients: * genetically modified; or * produced from genetically modified soya.In the case of products where there is no ingredients list, the words 'produced from genetically modified soya' must appear on the product label. The Regulation came into effect on 1st September 1998.

Global Facts and Figures

In 2007 the biotech crop market was estimated at US$6.9 billion by the market research company, Cropnois, of which $2.6 billion was from the biotech soya bean market. The countries with the highest soya bean production were the USA, Argentina and Brazil. In Argentina 16 million hectares was planted with GM soya, the total gains for which, between the years of 1996-2005, were worth $19.7 billion. In Brazil, 14.5 million hectares was planted with Roundup Ready ™soya with a market value of $6.6 billion, however only $2.09 billion was realised due to legal delays. This soya was not just used for food products or animal feed; 750,000 hectares was put aside to produce bio-diesel.

Worldwide, 114.3 million hectares are host to biotech crops including GM soya varieties; this figure represents 8% of the 1.5 billion hectares available to crop farming. GM soya was the principal biotech crop in 2007, grown on a total of 58.6 million hectares or 51% of the global biotech crop area.

The global value of the biotech crop market was projected at $7.5 billion for 2008.

Pressure Group and Public Attitudes to Genetic Engineering in the Food Chain

Some pressure groups oppose all forms of genetic engineering, whilst others are on particular aspects of the technology in plants, or animals, or the environmental concerns. Some prioritise the issue of consumer choice - the labelling of foods containing GM ingredients.

Providing effective communication about the benefits and risks of new technologies depends on understanding the underlying concerns of the public as well as the more technical issues. The public's perception of the risks of genetic engineering is mediated by their recognition of the tangible benefits of specific products, for example genetically engineered products with health- or environmental-related benefits such as the potential of soya beans engineered to be allergen free.

If information about genetic engineering in the food chain is perceived by the public as coming from a source that they do not trust, or promoting a particular vested interest, this can in itself create a negative perception of the technology. It is also useful to address some of the wider social issues (for example, worries about ethics) in the information provided, as these might also be driving consumer reactions (see publications by Dr Lynn Frewer and colleagues for further information).

Consumers around Europe have been questioned on their attitudes to GM foods. In a 1990’s Greenpeace /MORI survey 59% were opposed to its development and 22% supported it, with the French and Danish coming out most strongly against.

A poll carried out for the same group in April 2002 stated that 51% of the UK population sampled would avoid eating GM food, 40% did not mind and 3% would prefer to eat it. 18% of the sample thought that benefits of GM outweighed the risks, 24% thought that the risks and benefits of GM were about the same and 39% believed that the risks outweighed the benefits. 76% of the sample supported clear labelling of any products containing GM, with 6% supporting the US position that labelling should not be compulsory as the US authorities believe that it causes unnecessary concern to the consumer when the GM product is considered substantially equivalent to its natural counterpart.  The sample was across 1,004 adults aged 15+.

Another survey commissioned by The Centre for Environmental Risk at the University of East Anglia in 2003 found that, of 1,363 British public sampled, 39% were against GM food products, 13% supported GM completely and roughly 39% neither supported nor opposed GM food. A large majority (85%) believed that not enough was known about the long term effects of GM on our health. However, future benefits were also supported with 44% majority of the public thinking that GM would have a positive impact on the environment, 45% majority believing it would have a positive impact on consumers and 56% majority believing it would have a positive impact on developing countries. 79% of the sample believed that non-government organisations should regulate GM food in the UK.


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  • Burks, A. W. & Fuchs, R. L. (1995) Assessment of Endogenous Allergens in Glyphosate-Tolerant and Commercial Soybean Varieties. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology 96 1008-
  • Butler, D. (1996) Europe Agrees a Compromise on Food Labels. Nature 384 502-3 Frewer, L. J., Howard, C. & Shepherd, R. (1996) Effective communication about genetic engineering and food. British Food Journal 98 (4/5) 48-
  • Cunnane S, Anderson M (1997). Pure Linoleate Deficiency in the Rat: Influence on Growth, Accumulation of N-6 polyunsaturates, and (1-14C) Linoleate Oxidation. J Lipid Res 38 (4): 805–.
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Useful Websites

American Soybean Association (ASA) -

The ASA mainly deal with policy development and implementation of soya in the US via Congress presentations.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council -

Works as part of the Research Councils UK (RCUK). Funded from the Government's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) for academic research and training in the non-clinical life sciences

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – GM FAQs -

This website gives information on GM crops and production as well as providing links to the most recent news in the field. It also has a general introduction to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the Governments policies concerning GMOs.

European Federation of Biotechnology -

The non-profit association of Learned Societies, Universities, Institutes, Companies and Individuals interested in the promotion of Biotechnology throughout Europe and beyond

Food and Drink Federation -

The voice of the UK food and drinks industry.

Green Alliance -

This organisation works on environmental policy at senior level with government, parliament, business and other NGOs (non-government organisations).

Greenpeace -

An organisation “created to defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating ,exposing and confronting environmental abuse, and championing environmentally responsible solutions.”

Genetic ID -

A company that specialises in GMO identification.

Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) -

A non-profit scientific society with members working in food science and food technology producing reports into biotechnology and its progress.

Institute of Grocery distribution (IGD) -

IGD is concerned with the development of the food and grocery industry. It is involved with leading research and qualifications in the food and grocery industry.

Monsanto -

The website of the American agricultural company that created Roundup™ and Roundup Ready ™ soya.

National Centre For Biotechnology Education (NCBE) -

A website managed by the University of Reading committed to educating the public about the processes involved in biotechnology.

Phytochemicals – Soy -

This website gives a basic overview of soya and the chemicals it contains including the different types of isoflavones/ phytoestrogens.

Sense About Science- Making Sense of GM -

An independent charitable trust responding to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society. They work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion. A booklet is available to download on GM.


Information about soy and soya products. Administered by the Top Cultures organisation on whose aim is to provide information on natural foods in general and soya food products in particular.

SoyInfo Centre -

This website maps a history of soya and its products globally, from its production and trade to the uses of its oils and products.

SoyInfo.Com -

A website concerned with the consumer, with information about soy products and related protein issues.

Soy Stats -

A website containing statistical information about soya, including facts and figures on global production, crop yield and crop value.

Soyatech - www.

A publishing, research and consultation firm in the soya market. This website contains general information about soya and other oil related seeds, it also contains other useful website addresses linked to soya and soya production.

Sustain -

The alliance for better food and farming advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity.

The Food Standards Agency – Soya Allergy Information

This website gives information on the symptoms of an allergic reaction to soya, where soya and soya products can be found in the supermarket and advice on using soya in infant formulae.

The US Department of Agriculture- the National Agricultural Library

Using this website you can retrieve the exact composition of soya, from its products such as flour to the soyabean, raw, fresh or dried.

The Vegatarian Society -

An information sheet on the meat alternatives including soya products such as TVP, tofu, tempeh, soy sauces and soya dairy alternatives.

Wikipedia – Soybean -

A large database of information concerning soya and soya products; however caution should be exercised when using this website as a reference as anybody can edit the contents.

Further Information and Addresses:-

  • European Federation of Biotechnology tel +34 93 268 7703 (biotechnology handbook and leaflets)
  • Food & Drink Federation, 6 Catherine St, London WC2B 5JJ tel. 020 7836 2460 (for a copy of booklets in the 'Food for our Future - a guide to modern biotechnology' series);
  • Genetic ID, 500 North Third St Suite 208, Fairfield Iowa, 52556, USA
  • Genetics Forum, 94 White Lion St, London N1 9PF tel. 020 7837 9229 (for booklets including 'Spilling the Genes - what we should know about genetically-engineered foods')
  • Green Alliance tel 020 7836 0341
  • Greenpeace, Canonbury Villas, London N1 2PN tel 020 7865 8100 (for a handout entitled 'Health and Environmental Risks of Genetically Modified Soya' and other briefing information)
  • Institute of Food Technologists - 221 N LaSalle St, Suite 300, Chicago Il 60601-1291, USA; tel 001 312 782 8424
  • Institute of Grocery Distribution, Grange Lane, Letchmore Heath, Watford WD2 8DQ tel. 01923 857141
  • Monsanto Europe S.A./N.V., Avenue de Tervuren 270-272, Tervurenlaan 270-272 Letter Box No 1, B-1150 Brussels tel 00 32 2 776 41 11 (for information packs including 'Plant Biotechnology - harvesting solutions for tomorrow's world' - produced jointly with the American Dietetic Association)
  • National Centre for Biotechnology Education tel 0118 987 3743
  • National Farmers Union, 164 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8HL tel. 020 7331 7200 (for information about their Biotechnology Working Party)
  • Sustain, 94 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF tel. 020 7837 1228

Revised and Compiled by:

Lorna McAusland

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