When producers deliver soybeans to processors — most know that “crushing” yields the two primary raw products of oil and protein meal. Beyond that step, the bulk of those products then become animal feed or enter the human food chain in various ways.
A Lead Agricultural Product
Processors originally valued soy meal production as the value driver of soy-based commodities. The abundant protein in soy is considered complete because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids required for balanced nutrition. Humans and other mammals lack mechanisms for synthesizing these proteins in the body and must acquire them through diet. The two sulfur-based essential aminos (methionine and cysteine) from that group, however, rank at the low end of the spectrum compared to some other plant sources (which generally offer less complete protein profiles). Only a handful of plants match soybeans in offering the complete profile of essential amino acids.
The value of soy oil as a secondary product has come on strongly in recent years. Soybeans represent 90 percent of the oilseed production in the United States, reports USDA, despite producing a lower volume of oil per weight than other leading vegetable-oil sources. The robustly growing crop, however, leads peanut, sunflower seed, canola and flax-oil production by a wide margin.
Worldwide, Brazil recently took over the top soybean-producer title, but the United States remains a close second. The two countries, together, dominate worldwide production volume. About 6% of arable land worldwide grows soybeans in a given year, and growth in their share of the crop’s annual planting outpaces those of other grains and oilseeds.
Soybeans affect consumer lifestyles and the world economy in many ways, even though the ripples of their presence often go unnoticed by most people. With these factors in mind, let’s explore where soybean products end up after the crush and how they improve and enrich the lives of people around the world.
According to the USDA, soybeans affect agricultural operations in numerous ways. As a nitrogen-fixing plant, soy requires little in the way of supplemental inputs and enriches soil for the following year’s crop. This saves producers money they would otherwise have spent on fertilizer and reduces the potential for nitrogen runoff (a key environmental concern), while producing a crop that yields two valuable products. Once harvested and crushed, the meal comprising 80% of the bean often returns to the farm as feed for livestock — most frequently in poultry and hog operations, but also for beef cattle, dairy herds and a growing number of aquaponic operations.
In recent decades, protein-rich, easily digestible soy meal has become so important as a livestock feed, it has overtaken crude soy oil as the primary market for the crop. The development of cleaner-burning, biodiesel, however, promises to rebalance the scale. Recent reports attribute this summer’s increasing crude soy oil prices in part to expanding biodiesel production and plans for new production capacity.
Veterinarians have also begun to recognize the potential benefits of including a fraction of soy fiber in dairy herd diets. Sourced from the bean hulls, the fiber can replace a portion of forage without affecting the production level or the composition of the milk. Acceptance of this byproduct in the market can potentially bring the use of harvested bean mass close to 100 percent.
Soybeans have occupied a place in the human food chain for millennia, beginning in China and spreading throughout the world during the last century. Some sources suggest the public utilizes as much as 95 percent of all soybean oil, although a much larger amount of soybean oil now goes into biofuel than in the past. Humans, however, consume only about 2% of soy protein directly, as an overwhelming share of this commodity produces feed that supports the demand for animal-derived foodstuffs.
When it comes to eating soybeans, tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, edamame and miso (a fermented soup) usually come to mind first. However, soy pops up in a wide variety of foods as a role player, starting with oil used as a base in salad dressings, margarine or shortenings. These may then appear in baked goods, such as cookies or quick breads, and other ready-to-eat products. According to the United Soybean Board, the food industry uses more than half of all soybean oil consumed in the United States.
Protein derived from soybean meal adds nutritional value to many foods, including protein bars, meat alternatives and soymilk. One particular variety of soybean yields a valuable translucent protein that can enrich clear beverages without causing cloudiness. An important food ingredient called lecithin is also derived from soybeans. It is used as an emulsifier to keep oil-and-water mixtures from separating and to improve the texture of foods.
Although the benefits of including soybeans in the diet have been debated, over the last two decades significant research has brought their effects on health into focus. A review published in the journal Nutrients in 2016 highlighted research that refuted the claim that soy isoflavones (a plant-based compound that can bind to one type of human estrogen receptor) are harmful. The European Food Safety Authority1 determined that isoflavones do not adversely affect breast, thyroid or uterus tissues of postmenopausal women. In fact, they may actually help women manage menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.
In fact, 25 g/day of soy protein stands2 as the threshold level of consumption for reducing cholesterol levels as approved by the United States FDA. Studies also show that soy protein offers a small but measurable reduction potential for those with high blood pressure.
Aside from protein, soy contains a beneficial omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that humans need for balanced nutrition, and thus offers a more healthful choice that can replace other less-nutritious choices in one’s diet. Most omega-3 oils come from fish, so soybeans represent an important vegetarian option for obtaining a nutrient from this category of healthy fat.
Like most crops, specialty markets exist for soybeans that capitalize on the traits of a specific bean variety. Processors with specific end products in mind may look to contract for traits such as high oil content, high-oleic oil content (specific to monounsaturated fat) or high protein content. Other processors may look to contract for specific growing methods, such as gluten-free crop rotation, organic or non-GMO.
These specialty crops require producers to segregate the beans before delivery and may also require additional records to be kept regarding its origins and supply chain progression. These identity preservation crops, however, can also offer producers a greater return at harvest.
Industrial Raw Material
In 1995, industrial uses for soybeans comprised just 0.5% of soy protein and 2.6% of the oil produced in the United States. The predominant industrial uses included paper coatings, inks, alkyd resins and wood-veneer adhesives. During World War II, Ford even used soybeans to produce plastic body panels for a prototype automobile.
Things have changed dramatically in the last 25 years. With increased demand for environmentally friendly products, the development and growth of biodiesel claims a larger share of soy oil each year. Additionally, rubber, fiber, solvents, lubricants and adhesives all can be fabricated from soybeans. The United Soybean Board has published a guide detailing more than 1000 currently marketed products made from soybeans. The organization states that 7% of domestic soybean demand stemmed from industrial uses for the 2016/17 crop year.
As you can see, the growing web of soybean-derived end products touches peoples’ everyday lives in many ways. With demand continuing to grow, the importance of the soybean production to producers’ operations and the general economy grows with it. Bunge is proud to be one of the world’s top soybean processors, providing a vital link in growing and supplying the worldwide market for soybeans.
- A bushel of soybeans yields approximately 48 pounds of meal and 11 pounds of oil.
- The world’s top soybean producers are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, China and India.
- Brazil and the United States, respectively, stand as the number one and two exporters of soybeans, making up nearly 85% of all soybean exports in the world.
1 Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5188409/
2 Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5188409/