Soy-based beverages have risen over 20% in the last year, with soy drinks volumes in West Europe, North America and Japan doubling in five years, from 315m litres in 1999 to 805m litres last year.

According to the research group Zenith International, North America has seen average increases of 23% a year, while West Europe has been climbing at an even faster 34%.

"Soy's success owes much to greater appreciation of its potential health benefits, along with advances in technology that can mask or remove the 'off-flavours' associated with soy products," said Zenith research director Gary Roethenbaugh. 

"Its popularity has been further boosted by the rise in demand for functional beverages, introducing soy to a wider audience than the traditional soy consumer groups who tend to be lactose intolerant or allergic to milk protein. Recent research points to the benefits of soy in a variety of conditions including cancer, diabetes and allergies."

Zenith noted, however, that consumer groups and the beverage industry continue to debate the role of soy. Issues under scrutiny include concerns over genetically modified organisms as well as inconsistencies between regulators and legislation.

"As with all health promoting beverages, educational marketing is vital - particularly as soy beverages flow into the consumer mainstream," concluded Roethenbaugh.