(July 3) The trend toward healthy eating is reaching new heights, and so has the sales curve for soy foods.

Sales for the soy category reached a staggering $2.77 billion in 2001 — an increase of 21 percent from the previous year, according to a study conducted by Soyatech Inc., Bar Harbor, Maine, in conjunction with A.C. Nielsen.

The United Soy Board, St. Louis, says 97 percent of consumers are aware of soy foods.

The biggest news isn’t that the category is growing, however, it’s where that growth is taking place.

Suppliers say they see a leveling off in the growth of tofu products — the segment that started the soy craze — and they’re noting huge increases in soy-based meat, cheese and dairy alternatives.

Roy Kingsmith, director of marketing for Yves Veggie Cuisine, Vancouver, British Columbia, cites A.C. Nielsen statistics indicating that the U.S. fresh meat alternative segment increased 26 percent for the 52 weeks for the year that ended May 4. Cheese alternative sales increased by 10.4 percent. Gains in Canada were similar.

Kingsmith says those are real sales increases, not like the 50 percent to 80 percent gains the category saw in the past as a result of newdistribution.

“The growth in the category is being driven by consumer interest,” he says.

PLACE IT IN PRODUCE

The produce department is well-positioned to capitalize on this rapid movement.

Christopher Morini, vice president of key accounts and international sales for Galaxy Nutritional Foods, Orlando, Fla., says 85 percent of supermarkets merchandise soy-based products in produce.

“Our product is identifiable with fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says. “We feel, at this time, that the best place for our products is in the produce section.”

As many as nine out of 10 people who visit a supermarket go to the produce section, he adds, pointing out that vegetarians and health-conscious consumers who have cut back on meat and dairy products are prime candidates for purchasing soy products.

The various soy alternatives make it easy and convenient for consumers to incorporate soy into their diets in the form of products they are used to eating, he says.

Art Mio, director of sales for Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc., Torrance, Calif., says some stores are creating nutrition or natural foods sections — a store-within-a-store concept — that also might be a fitting place for soy foods.

Tofu remains Morinaga’s top product and sales are holding steady, Mio says, but the biggest gains are in ready-to-eat items, just as they are in other produce value-added categories.

Sam Marrazzo, owner of two Marrazzo’s Thriftway stores based in Robbinsville, N.J., says he stocks three kinds of tofu in a 4-foot section in produce. He doesn’t sell fresh meat alternatives, but he does sell soy cheese substitutes.

“Cheese (alternatives) I do leave in produce,” he says. “I had it in dairy, but for some reason, we found it does better right next to the salads.”

He offers up to six kinds of sliced cheese alternatives.

Mike Gliko, an owner of Mike’s Discount Foods, a single store in Carmichael, Calif., had a different experience.

“I had (cheese alternatives) in produce, but when I moved them to cheese, I’d say the sales doubled,” he says.

CONSUMER CORE

While the core consumer for soy foods remains the well-educated 25- to 45-year-old woman with a higher income, Kingsmith of Yves Veggies Cuisine says two other categories are making significant gains. The 19-year-old to 25-year-old health-conscious, label-reading consumer is one growing category and baby boomers older than 55 who are “being forced to eat healthy” to lose weight or deal with health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease are also eating more soy.

“Only about 10 percent of our consumers currently are vegan or vegetarian,” he says. Kingsmith sees older and younger consumers as huge business opportunities.

Gliko of Mikes Discount Foods says soy foods sell well year-round, except for Christmastime.

“People aren’t that concerned with health around the holidays,” he says.

But sales pick up in January as consumers embark on new year’s diets, and there’s a resurgence in spring, when people try to slim down to fit into their swimsuits. And ground beef alternatives are popular during the summer barbecue season.

Marrazzo of Marrazzo’s Thriftway says in-store demos really can help the sale of soy foods, especially cheese substitutes, where he says movement can increase 50 percent to 75 percent with the help of a demo.

Marrazzo says he has noticed the popularity of soy foods trickle down from upscale stores to mainstream markets, along with the trend to natural foods. “It’s pretty amazing,” he says.