Every five years, the USDA updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While not specific guidance for nutrient consumption, the Dietary Guidelines are used by the US government as the basis of its food assistance and meal programs, nutrition education efforts, including the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). And subsequently, forward-thinking food companies leverage the guidelines as one tool to evolve how they think about the ingredients in their products, the nutrition they offer and how they fit in American's diets.
The recently released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans set forth recommendations to "make every bite count." That is to adopt a diet that is rich in nutrients and limits excess calories most commonly found in added fats and sugars. And, to adopt that diet as a long-term healthy pattern, not a behavior that is followed for a short period of time. In 2020, 43% of Americans said they followed a specific diet or eating pattern within the past year, an increase from 38% in 20191. Additionally, approximately 31% of consumers report purchasing more items tailored for their health, and 50% have reported a preference for foods and beverages that naturally contain beneficial ingredients2.
As is common, the guidelines represent evolution versus revolution. The new guidelines outline three healthy dietary patterns that have built over time: U.S.-style, vegetarian, and Mediterranean-style. In addition, the guidelines define six core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern: vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein foods, and oils3.
Throughout the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the importance of including soy as a valuable component to a healthy diet is evident. Soy is called out specifically within the three patterns and four of the six core elements of a healthy diet.
- Vegetables: Both edamame and soybeans are included in the vegetable subgroup "beans, peas, and lentils." Because of their nutrient profiles, the foods in this subgroup may be counted toward one's recommended intake of vegetables or protein.
- Dairy: In the dairy group, fortified soy beverages and soy yogurt are the only plant-based milk alternatives considered to be a dairy equivalent, and therefore can contribute to meeting the dairy recommendation, while also supporting fluid intake to help prevent dehydration1.
- Protein foods: Soy products including tofu, tempeh, and products made from soy flour, soy protein isolate, and soy concentrate are all included in the protein category. Of note, the Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming 5 ounces of soy protein products per week (for those consuming a 2,000 calorie/day diet).
- Oils: Oils, including soybean and vegetable oil, are included in a healthy dietary pattern because they provide essential fatty acids. The Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming vegetable and soybean oil in place of fats higher in saturated fat.
You might ask why soy is so often directly or indirectly referenced by in the guidelines and the answer points directly back to nutrient density.
Nutrient-dense foods are those that provide a high proportion of beneficial nutrients in relation to weight, energy creation or to non-beneficial elements. And soy has long been recognized as a nutrient-dense food. Soy protein is considered a complete protein, offering all nine amino acids that the body cannot make and that must be obtained from the diet. Further, soy is a source of nutrients including B vitamins, fiber, potassium and magnesium4.
Some may note that the guidelines also call for the reduction of saturated fat, which again favors soybean oil. Conventional soybean oil has a similar saturated fat content to that of olive and corn oils and is substantially lower than palm and cottonseed oils. And high oleic soybean oil improves on that performance with lower saturated fat and three times the beneficial monounsaturated fat than conventional vegetable oils.
This desire to influence health and wellness through foods and beverages is creating new opportunities for nutrient-dense products offering functional health benefits such as immune system support or sustaining energy5. Consumers choose foods with beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, lean protein, fiber and healthy fats6. Various soyfoods offer some of today's sought-after nutrients, including protein, probiotics, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition, soy and soyfoods help food companies address consumers' desire for plant-based foods. More than four in 10 consumers (43%) say they would assume that a product described as "plant- based" would be healthier than one that is not, even if it had the same Nutrition Facts label7. Soy is a unique vegetable protein source compared to other legumes because of its combination of high protein content and lower carbohydrate content8. Tofu, edamame, soymilk and canned soybeans are convenient product choices for consumers who are looking for simple ways to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
- Archer Daniels Midland, ADM, "Top 5 Global Food Trends 2021."
- International Food Information Council, Consumer Survey: Nutrient Density and Health, August 20, 2020.
- International Food Information Council, 2020 Food & Health Survey.
- Nutrients, "Soy, Soy Foods and Their Role in Vegetarian Diets," J