What are nonfood uses?

Nonfood uses for soy can include any nonfood application. Over the past two decades, soybeans have become an attractive alternative to petrochemical raw materials across a wide variety of industries. Today, rubbers, fibers, plastics, coatings, solvents, lubricants, adhesives and thousands of consumer products use soy as an ingredient.

Why is it important?

Global economic volatility makes diversification of demand for U.S. soybeans more important than ever. That’s why long-term planners are already exploring ways to grow the market for non-food uses of soy.

Other trends in consumer demand, such as a desire for renewable and sustainable raw materials, help make soybeans ideal for nonfood uses.

As an annual crop, soybeans are renewable and less expensive than petrochemical products.  They remove carbon dioxide from the air, helping end users meet their sustainability goals. As a legume, they fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, reducing the need for energy-intensive, nitrogen-based fertilizers. And the domestic supply of soybeans continues to grow, which allows nonfood users to plan for the long term when building out their materials’ supply chains.

A subsection of the national soybean crop that is currently grown in 12 states, high oleic soybeans bring an added marketable element. They produce an oil that remains stable in high heat conditions — a necessary trait for synthetic motor oils and automotive lubricants.

Broadly speaking, researching and finding markets for nonfood uses of soy makes sense for U.S. soybean farmers and nonfood end users. Soy is clean, affordable, dependable and sustainable.

What is happening now?

Over the past 20 years, the soy checkoff has laid the groundwork, investing in research and nurturing relationships with potential partner industries.

The results of those efforts can be seen in an explosion of new and innovative soybean applications. Three primary categories dominate the nonfood uses market today — coatings, adhesives and fiber.

One coating application — a soy-biobased dust suppressant called EPIC EL — has shown tremendous promise in the fight against excessive dust around gravel roads. This provides the double benefit of keeping dust particles from polluting the air while also stabilizing the integrity of gravel roads, which make up 35% of the nation’s roadways.

Soy-based adhesives offer a distinct advantage in the form of reducing the release of volatile organic compounds. Notable among these is the known carcinogen formaldehyde, frequently used as a binding agent in spray insulation. Research continues on opportunities to increase market share for soy-based binding agents in the insulation space.

Additionally, a research partnership between the soy checkoff, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa State University resulted in soy-based asphalt. Soy-based asphalt combines 100% recycled asphalt pavement mixed with a soy-based polymer, enhancing durability and longevity while reducing maintenance costs.

Perhaps the most well-known nonfood use for soy is in car tires. Due in part to research funded by the soy checkoff, the Goodyear® Tire & Rubber Company introduced tires featuring soybean oil in 2021. Goodyear has a stated goal of eliminating its dependence on petroleum-based oil by the year 2040, which bodes well for the future of this market. Building on this success, Skechers running shoes now uses the same rubber technology found in Goodyear tires.

Key messages

  • The soybean’s versatile chemical composition makes it ideal for a range of uses. Its amino acid profile helps soybean meal remain a desirable animal feed, while its oil has an astonishing range of applications.
  • Every year, checkoff-supported research helps bring dozens of new soy products to market. The future looks bright in this space as soy continues to be seen as a desirable alternative to petrochemicals.
  • U.S. soybean production recently exceeded 4.3 billion bushels, generating abundant supply and allowing product manufacturers to more frequently consider soy in their supply chains.

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