Soy is used in pizza, stews, chocolate icing, and vegetarian food.
What's so special about this super bean?

Norwegian raw materials are just as good as soy, but everything hinges on price, says a Norwegian food producer.

Soybeans have been cultivated in China for over 3,000 years, but did not reach the West until much later, according to the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia (link in Norwegian). 

The plant quickly became popular. And it's no wonder why.

Soybeans are packed with protein: 36 grams per hundred grams of raw beans. That is twice as much protein as chickpeas and peas contain, according to the food table.

Soybeans also offer healthy oil and have a lot of it: 20 per cent. This is much more than chickpeas and peas which only have around 5 per cent oil.

In addition to being nutritious, soybeans are cheap. This is what makes them so suitable as food for humans and animals.

In Norway, soy protein is mixed into the meat of several ready-to-eat pizzas, including the Norwegian brand Grandiosa.

Bigger breasts from soy?

Soy is also sometimes present in tinned stew and liver pâté. The additive soy lecithin is found in chocolate icing, biscuits, and ready-made meals. In vegetarian products, soy is a common substitute for meat.

Soy constitutes a large part of the Norwegian livestock diet.

20 per cent of the feed chickens eat is soybean meal. The pig's diet consists of 8 per cent soybean meal, while salmon feed is around 12 per cent, according to the feed companies' annual reports.

But not everyone is sure if soybeans are good for us.

Recent posts in social media claim that men get bigger breasts from soy milk.

Reduces the risk of diseases

The claims presumably arose because soybeans and other legumes contain hormones that resemble oestrogen.

But plant hormones work differently than human hormones, researchers explained in this Washington Post article.

The effect is rather the opposite. Soy appears to reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and perhaps counteract poor memory in dementia and old age, the researchers reported.

But despite all the positive properties of soybeans and all the products they can be used in, Norway aims to use less soy.

Soybeans can be turned into oil, soy sauce, milk, and tofu. But they are primarily used in animal feed and as an additive in meat and other foods.

Most soy is genetically modified

Two factors are prompting Norway’s aim to reduce soy consumption: genetic modification and the rainforest.

All the soy people and livestock in Norway eat is imported.

70 per cent of all these soy imports go to the salmon industry, according to, but the rest is distributed for animal and human consumption.

The USA is the world’s largest producer of soy, but does not export soybeans to Norway, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

The soybean plant is the most genetically modified crop in the world. Its genes have been engineered to give the versatile beans even better properties and to increase yields. 

In Norway, no products with genetically modified soy are approved for humans or animals, according to the Norwegian Food Safety Authority (link in Norwegian). Therefore, Norwegian companies buy soy from the second largest producing country, Brazil. There, the plant is also often genetically modified, but there are some soy plantations with unmodified plants.

And then the rainforest comes into the picture.

Cattle require new pastures

Soy farming has grown a lot in Brazil, and land is needed for that. 

Norwegian companies have committed not to buy soy from fields located in rainforest areas that have been logged.

A highway separates a soybean field from a protected national park in Brazil.

Environmental organisations, including the Rainforest Foundation Norway, say this policy does not help, because soybean cultivation instead takes over areas used for cattle grazing.

So the problem shifts: cattle need space to graze. That space is found in the rainforest, which is being cut down.

Researchers and food producers are working to resolve the soybean problem from two angles. One approach is to find substitutes for soy, and the other is for Norway to grow its own soy locally.

Ingunn M. Vågen has tried the latter.

Cold climate for soy plants

Vågen works at the research institute NIBIO and participated in a project focused on cultivating high-protein plants.

"In recent years, there has been considerable effort to boost soy production in Europe, even in northern regions with less favourable climates," Vågen tells

Germany and Belgium, for example, are trying to develop varieties that are better adapted to northern growing seasons and conditions.

Vågen primarily experimented with different varieties of immature soybeans, known as edamame beans.

These beans are especially popular in Asian cuisine, where they are served steamed with salt and lemon.

Soy makes up a large part of the Japanese diet, notably in the form of edamame beans.

Cultivating went well, but it stopped there

“Edamame are a different kind of bean, but from the same plant species as mature soy used in food and animal feed,” says Vågen.

A big difference is that edamame soybeans are harvested as immature seeds.

“It’s important for the seeds to be large, green, sweet, and tasty, and for the pods to be smooth with a nice green colour,” she says.

The fact that they are immature when harvested is what might make them suitable for cultivation in Norway.

“The Norwegian growing season is short. If we’re going produce soy in this country, we’ll need varieties that can be harvested early. Soy plants are really sensitive to cold temperatures,” says Vågen.

Ingunn Vågen is researching vegetable production and has tried her hand at cultivating soybeans.

Soybean cultivation in Norway?

It has long been predicted that climate change will lead to longer growing seasonsin Norway.

“We’re already noticing it. Eventually, it might become possible to grow mature soy in some parts of Norway,” says Vågen.

At NIBIO, the researchers managed to produce mature soy seeds in certain varieties.

However, Vågen strongly doubts that Norwegian soy could replace the current imports.

“But a number of years from now we might arrive at a point where Norwegian soy might supplement peas and broad beans, which are the protein crops best suited to be grown in Norway,” she says. 

“We have limited arable land in Norway, so soy would have to displace something else.” 

The edamame beans she grew were good, but they never made it into a store. The research has been paused for now. 

More than just researchers needed

This is because the harvest-ready period for edamame in the field is short, and the beans have a short shelf life.

“Edamame beans need to be harvested, cooled, packed, shipped, and distributed to stores within a few days. One possibility is of course to freeze them,” says Vågen.

But both fresh and frozen edamame require someone to take them from the fields and move them along the value chain to consumers.

The researchers at NIBIO do not have any such system in place. It's not what they do.

“We’ve now learned that it actually is possible to grow edamame in good climate zones in Norway, with the right varieties and cultivation techniques. It's a start. But others need to deal with the challenges of moving product forward in the value chain,” Vågen says.

But the researcher believes the soy experiment was not in vain.

“We can build on the knowledge we’ve acquired about soybeans in Norway. When the time comes, we’ll be ready to start up again,” she says.

Other researchers are trying to find substitutes for soy.

This machine transforms protein flour into meat-like products. Stefan Sahlstrøm demonstrates the method.

Norwegian raw materials a possibility

Stefan Sahlstrøm at Nofima, a leading food research institute, has worked on creating meat substitutes using Norwegian ingredients.

Broad beans and yellow peas have a lot of protein, although less than soybeans do.

Sahlstrøm removed the husks of beans and peas, ground them into flour, and sifted it so that the protein was separated from the starch.

“We’re left with a fine flour that contains around 60 per cent protein,” Sahlstrøm previously told (link in Norwegian).

The flour can be mixed with a lot of water to create firm, meat-like pieces. Alternatively, it can be mixed with just a little water and used in vegetarian sausages and hamburgers.

It has become more common to use Norwegian raw materials in plant-based products.

That's what they do at Flowfood, which makes burgers, nuggets, and balls from broad beans and peas.

However, food producers continue to add soy flour to meat products.

“The raw materials we use are just as good as soy, but it's porbably the price that determines what the food industry uses," says Richard Nystad, Flowfood’s general manager.


Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

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