The cholesterol-lowering qualities of soya have so far appealed most to affluent older people looking for a dairy alternative that provides equivalent or better nutrition. How soya can be extended beyond this demographic is a contentious issue.
The taste has deterred consumers in the UK. Alpro has been at pains to mask the flavour in its products, which are made using whole soya beans rather than soya protein isolate.
"Our ambition is to get as close to dairy as possible," says John Allaway, commercial director. "The technology is getting better, making this easier, and it's easier to do in certain products such as yoghurts that contain fruit. But we can't cater to everyone out there. It is the older market that is biggest for us, women, 45 years old-plus, and we will be focused on attracting more of these customers for the time being."
Other suppliers believe soya should be distanced from dairy. "We don't often refer to 'soya milk'," says Robin Gleave, marketing director at Soya Health Foods.
"One of the things that has held back the market is that by continually referring to soya as milk it creates a mindset for some consumers that the product will taste like milk, which it doesn't. This leads to lost sales when the consumer rejects the taste."
Instead, soya should be marketed alongside dairy, not simply within it, so that consumers know what to expect, he says.
"Yes soya performs many of the same functions as dairy milk, but it should be regarded as a product in its own right."
EU regulations currently ban the use of the term 'milk' on soya products anyway, as milk is defined as a "mammary secretion". However, Gleave's view that this is a good thing contrasts with that of the European Natural Soyfoods Manufacturers Association.
A spokesman for the ENSA says the ubiquitous use of the term 'soya milk' by consumers to describe liquid soya should allow for a law change. "Consumers routinely use the term 'soya milk' to describe soya-based drinks, and with good reason. They are used in the same way as cows' milk. But unlike US or Asian producers, EU soya producers cannot use the term 'soya milk' on their labels. This produces an ambiguous situation for consumers who find a product called 'soya juice' or 'soya drink' on shelves, when what they want is 'soya milk'."
The ENSA says that since the regulation was created in 1988, exceptions have been made for some products such as almond milk and coconut milk. The same logic should now apply to soya too, it says. n