Soy has left its position as a simple raw material for oil to reach the tables of Brazil and the world in the form of varied products like milk and meat. The discovery that the product is beneficial to health was one of the main boosters transforming the commodity into an ingredient of thousands of gastronomic recipes in recent decades.
Soy is currently considered a functional food by Westerners, that is, a food that not only has nutritional values, but is also beneficial to the health.
"Consumption of soy in Brazil has lived a transformation over the last 30 years. The growing concern for more healthy food has placed soy in the list of products consumed by a greater and greater number of people," explained Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) Soy Unit researcher Mercedes Panizzi, who has been studying the oleaginous plant since 1985.
That is no surprise, as the commodity is rich in protein and contains isoflavones and other substances capable of acting in the prevention of chronic and degenerative diseases.
It is currently possible to find several options of products based on soy, like the soluble extract, also known as soy "milk" and textured vegetable protein, known as soy "meat". The grain is sold in supermarkets, municipal markets, farmer's markets and natural product shops.
Soy flour, a raw material for production of cakes, pies, biscuits and bread, may also be found in specialized natural product shops or on diet and handmade product shelves in supermarkets.
But it has not always been like that. If the properties of the grain, preparation techniques and incorporation into diets still cause doubts, imagine what it was like in the beginning. According to the researcher, there was great rejection to the unpleasant taste of soy foods, something directly related to the preparation.
"Soy has enzymes called lipoxygenases which, when in contact with cold water, start a reaction that produces components that are responsible for the exotic flavor of the grain," explained Mercedes.
"We have discovered a thermal treatment to stop the enzyme acting. Soaking the soy in boiling water for two to three minutes before processing," she explained.
Soy grains, textured protein and oil are ingredients of other foods, like chocolate and sausages. Soy is part of these products due to its functionality. "Soy stops sausages wilting after being cooked," she explained.
Aware of the special characteristics of soy, points out Mercedes, the Embrapa researchers and technicians are working on the development of soy cultivars that are more adequate for human consumption, with milder taste, more appropriate seed size and protein content, among other characteristics.
For the last three years it has been possible to find seed varieties BRS 213 and BRS 257, which are the result of long years of research and do not have lipoxygenase enzymes. Another variety developed by the organization is BRS 267, which presents larger and lighter seeds, ideal for the production of flour, milk and for industry in general.
Despite the change in habits, there is much space for the use of soy in human feeding to grow further. According to rural economy specialist Eugênio Stefanello, soy used for human consumption is not even 1% of the 58 million tons picked in the crop this year.
"That is not considering the 3.4 million tons of soy oil to be sold on the foreign market and that are used in human consumption," explained Stefanello.
In a very near future, soy should arise as an option for the chemical industry. "More and more, industry is going to start using soy in its processes. As it is an abundant, biodegradable raw material and a source of renewable energy, specially in chaff and vegetable oil, new and important industrial uses will arise," stated the researcher
According to her, this forecast has gained strength after the promotion of international seminar "Soy resources for non-food industrial processes", which Embrapa Soy promoted in Rio de Janeiro, in April this year. The event brought together around 140 participants and researchers aiming at finding new applications for the oleaginous plant.
Carpet bases, cleaning products, plastics, foam, adhesives, paint, lubricants, solvents and removers are some of the products where soy has been competing effectively with petrochemicals in several markets.
"The versatility of soy has been well known since 1900, when Henry Ford and Washington Carver presented several uses of the grain. However, at the time, the entry of low-cost oil derivatives practically inhibited its expansion. Nowadays, with high oil prices and the growth of concerns with global warming, soy has returned to being an option for industry," explained Mercedes.
In the United States research for new industrial uses for soy are more advanced. Figures supplied by the United Soybean Board (USB) show that in 2005 approximately 380 million kilograms of soy oil was used in the industrial product industry. The organization forecasts that this value should jump to 434 million kilograms in 2007.
According to the researcher, new applications for soy chaff should also gain market in coming years. Plywood, sink cabinets and wood glue are already being produced out of chaff. According to information disclosed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), soy chaff has been greatly used in the past in non-food products.
In the 1940s, soy chaff was a raw material for laminated paper glue and adhesives for wood, as well as in the textile and plastic mould industry. However, with the birth of cheaper alternative synthetic material, the use of soy chaff was limited to animal feeding.
Soy has also been a raw material for the lubricant industry. The sector in the United States uses soy in several kinds of hydraulic fuels, like fluid for elevators, for stationary pumps and for tractors. There are also products used in metallurgy and for lubrication of moulds used in metal foundry, lubrication of forms for concrete and lubrication of asphaltic paste.
"This technology already exists. We are greatly interested in stimulating some company to invest in this cooperative process to develop these products in Brazil," stated the researcher, who spent two years working at Embrapa Labex, the organization's offices in the United States.
"We currently export many commodities. It is necessary to invest more in processed products with greater added values," she added.
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