Closeup of soy-based tire

(Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Importance of soy

February 15, 2021

What are soybeans used for?

Products made from soybeans touch everyday life in countless ways. About 60% 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. 

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. 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%.
  • Beef and dairy cattle use just over 10%.
  • Pigs consume nearly 24%.

The rest goes to aquatic farming like fish and shrimp, other farm animals and companion animals like horses and pets. Global animal agriculture is the No. 1 customer for U.S. soybeans.

Human Nutrition

People need high-quality protein. Soybeans deliver a vegetable protein option in many forms. 

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. 

Soybean oil remains the most common vegetable oil in the U.S. and is often labeled and sold as vegetable oil. Of the soybean oil used in the U.S., 54.3% goes to the food industry. 

  • Soy oil is a source of omega-3 and vitamin E with zero trans fats.


  • Bottles of pure vegetable oil, salad dressings, spreads and more contain soybean oil. 


  • Tofu is a nutritious protein option.

  • High oleic soybean oil excels in high-heat uses like frying. 

  • Edamame is soybean picked while still green. 

  • Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and carries similar nutritional benefits to tofu. 

Industrial Uses

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%. 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. 

  • Soy allows manufacturers to replace petroleum-based materials while increasing performance.

  • Uses for soy-based products continue to expand — from flooring and roofing products to candles and personal care items. 

This story was originally published in the February 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.