Soya drinks, initially marketed as an alternative to milk for people with allergies, have seen rapid growth in recent years as research into the benefits of soy attracted many new consumers such as women trying to lose weight or people hoping to lower their cholesterol. The growth has led numerous multinational food and beverage firms, as well as private label manufacturers, to create products with soya protein, increasing competition and the need for further innovation from the category leaders. While sales growth has slowed in some markets, new technology, such as TetraPak's FlexDos filling machine and the rise in processing methods like microfiltration, is allowing soy beverage producers to innovate more easily, heard delegates at a conference this week organised by PROSOY Research & Strategy. Heat and light-sensitive ingredients like omega-3 fatty acids and up and coming health additives like CLA and lactoferrin can be added into soymilk at a later stage of the production process, bypassing the damaging UHT treatments typically used by soymilk producers to kill bacteria, explained TetraPak's Tomas Berg. "You can also add flavours at a later stage of the process, removing some of the constraints for product development with flavours that are sensitive to heat and vacuum pressure." "This adds flexibility - you can follow seasonal themes with products or launch limited edition products," he told delegates at the event organized by Netherlands-based Prosoy. TetraPak has sold more than 30 of its FlexDos machines in Europe and is now looking to promote the technology in Asia. This region is seeing strong growth in soya beverages, particularly in Thailand where soy drinks grew by 30 per cent last year compared with less than 10 per cent in cow's milk. Public health campaigns, including one from the Thai health ministry, as well as major advertising initiatives by the leading brands, have promoted the health benefits of drinking soya among the younger generation. The impressive growth has seen dairies like Fonterra and Friesland Foods launch new soya products in Thailand in the last year to reap some of the rising sales. Other Asian markets also present significant opportunities for soya beverage makers, said David Moss, marketing director for Solae Asia-Pacific. "Two-thirds of the world's diabetics are going to come from Asia in the future, and China already has some 185 million overweight people. The soy industry should start working now to offer solutions for prevention of obesity-related disease," he said. In China, consumers attach significant value to vegetable protein and this is already being exploited by a new soy-juice combination product called V-Pro on the Hong Kong market. "Consumers still have trouble making the jump to soy-based juices - the soymilk image stays with them. But talking about vegetable protein rather than soy protein could be a good way of reaching these consumers," said Moss. A number of new products launched around the world in recent months have used other low-key messages about soy to reach new consumers, conference speakers revealed. These include Unilever's Adez, a soy-based juice recently launched in the UK, and Up & Go, a new soy and dairy breakfast drink on the Australian market. Neither emphasise the presence of soy in the products but instead create an overall image of health. "Putting fruit and soy together creates enormous opportunities for companies to reach new consumers as fruit already has a strong association with health," added Moss. "I think we will really see this kind of product developing over the next 18 months," added Helen Reece, sales and marketing director at Vitasoy, Australia's number two soy beverage producer. "If you can do it alongside packaging innovation, offering juices in single-serve packs through convenience stores, then this will create a really big opportunity," she told AP-Foodtechnology.com.