What Are Soybeans Used For?

*Last updated June 29, 2020*

Soy. It’s much more than a latte option, tofu or a U.S. export China levied a tariff on.

Farmers grow soybeans throughout the United States. About 60 percent of U.S. soybeans are exported around the world, while the rest are processed here. But regardless of where they are used, the vast majority are crushed to separate the protein and oil in the bean.

Products made from soybeans touch everyday life in countless ways, though often behind the scenes.

Animal nutrition

Animal agriculture produces high-quality protein in the form of dairy, meat, poultry, fish and eggs. But much of that protein started as soy. In fact, global animal agriculture is the No. 1 customer for U.S. soybeans.

Animals like chickens, pigs, turkeys, cattle and fish rely on nutrient-dense soybean meal to thrive. They need high levels of quality protein and digestible energy to grow, all found in soybean meal.

According to a study funded by the soy checkoff, the soybean meal fed in the U.S. goes to several segments of animal agriculture.

  • Poultry eats about 64 percent.1
  • Pigs consume nearly 24 percent.1
  • Beef and dairy cattle use just over 10 percent.1
  • The rest goes to aquatic farming like fish and shrimp, other farm animals and companion animals like horses and pets.1

Countries buying soybeans from the U.S. also use soybean meal to feed animals. For example, it feeds poultry in Columbia, pigs in the European Union, fish in Southeast Asia and much more, according to the U.S. Soybean Export Council.

Human nutrition

Of course, people need high-quality protein, too. Soybeans deliver a vegetable protein option in many forms.

  • Tofu, a nutritious protein option, maybe the most well-known form of soy.
  • Tempeh, made from fermented soybeans, carries similar nutritional benefits to tofu.
  • The popular appetizer edamame is soybeans picked while still green.

Most of the time, foods incorporate soy after the beans have been crushed. Soybean meal provides protein in foods like protein bars, meat alternatives and soy milk. The FDA has reviewed research that says 25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Food companies are permitted to use that claim on labels.2

Ever cook with vegetable oil? Soybean oil remains the most common vegetable oil in the U.S. and is often labeled and sold as just that — vegetable oil. In fact, 54.3% of the soybean oil used in the U.S. goes to the food industry.3

  • Food companies and restaurants rely on it for frying, baking and other food preparation. High oleic soybean oil excels in high-heat uses like frying.
  • Soy lecithin adds and protects texture and flavor in many foods.
  • In the grocery store, bottles of pure vegetable oil, salad dressings, spreads and more contain soybean oil.
  • It’s a source of omega-3 and vitamin E with zero trans fats.4

Industrial uses

A renewable resource, soybean uses range far beyond food and feed. Soybean oil and meal can replace petroleum and other volatile ingredients in many industrial and consumer products.

The primary example is biodiesel, a cleaner-burning, renewable alternative to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel blended into diesel used in the U.S. transportation fuel supply reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86%.5 It also eases dependence on fossil fuels often refined from foreign oil. U.S. consumers used nearly 2 billion gallons of biodiesel in 2017. Soybean oil accounts for about half the feedstock used to produce biodiesel.6

Other uses for soybean components include:

  •  Using soy allows manufacturers to replace petroleum-based materials and satisfy demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly products, while increasing its performance. For example, Goodyear and the United Soybean Board funded research that discovered using soybean oil in tires resulted in better traction in wet and winter conditions.7  The company launched four lines of soy-based tires offered in a wide range of cars, minivans and SUVs on the road today. Building on this success, Goodyear intends to increase its use of soybean oil by more than 25% and replace all petroleum-derived processing oils with soybean oil in its tires by 2040.8
  • Uses for soy-based products continue to expand, with the soy checkoff’s Soy Products Guide containing more than 1,000 items currently on the market — from flooring and roofing products to candles and personal care items.

Soy impacts feed, food, fuel and countless other areas. And it makes a good latte.

Sources and Additional Resources:

1    2018 Soybean Meal Demand Analysis, United Soybean Board.

2    Food and Drug Administration (April 2019). CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.

3    United Soybean Board Market View Database.

4    United Soybean Board.

5    National Biodiesel Board (2019). Production Statistics.

6     U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019). Biofuels Explained: Use of Biodiesel.

7     Goodyear’s New Assurance ComfortDrive Serves Up All the Ingredients of a Smooth Ride. Goodyear Corporate.

8    Tire Business/Goodyear.

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