08 Jun 2022 — Agricultural commodities are facing increased pressure as broken supply chains, the climate crisis and war in Ukraine continue to affect multiple layers of F&B production.
FoodIngredientsFirst speaks with emulsifier suppliers Palsgaard, Corbion and Sternchemie about the current sunflower lecithin shortage and how manufacturers are mitigating the challenge.
“The supply of lecithin and especially sunflower lecithin has been dramatically affected by the war in Ukraine,” says Morten Hoffmann Kyed, director of product management at Palsgaard.
“Around 70% of the global sunflower lecithin production takes place in Ukraine and Russia. So, the war in Ukraine hit the industry very hard,” adds Dr. Roland Rabeler, business development manager Sternchemie.
And, while suppliers were able to manage these impacts successfully before, the war and consecutive influences have rendered securing supplies virtually impossible, he continues.
“Free volumes of lecithin are virtually non-existent, and the company detects a high level of strongly opportunistic and even non-ethical behaviors.”
A perfect storm?
A crippling series of crises has gripped the F&B industry on several fronts, according to the World Food Program.
“Even before the war, a wide variety of factors have put the supply chain of sunflower lecithin as well as the other non-GMO lecithin streams under strong pressure,” Rabeler continues.
“Besides COVID-19-related backlogs, logistical constraints, and production problems, weather impacts and political decisions have driven global raw material stocks significantly down.”
At the same time, Hoffmann Kyed points out that demand has significantly grown. He notes that chocolate consumption has increased over the past years.
Lecithin is also seeing growth in the burgeoning plant-derived space, highlights Rabeler.
“We see a significantly increasing demand in lecithin solutions – both functionality and volume-wise. They are used extensively for instantizing in plant milks and other nutritional products.”
Margaret Walsh, senior scientist at Corbion, concurs that emulsifiers will likely play an essential role in the plant-based space, particularly in meat and dairy alternatives.
They have also been used more recently to mimic animal and dairy fats in plant-based or keto options, highlights Hoffmann Kyed.
An indispensable ingredient
Emulsifiers are important for processed foods as they improve the texture and commercial manufacturing tolerance of products in the bakery, chocolate, confectionery and dairy sectors, among others.
One example is their ability to reduce tortilla stickiness, highlights Yanling Yin, director of RD&A at Corbion. Dehydrated potatoes can also benefit from the ingredient.
“Emulsifiers prevent the potatoes from sticking to the drying drum and there would be an increase in yield loss,” adds Walsh.
They are also used in the reduction of both trans fats and saturated fats. Less commonly – but increasingly more so – they are also used in food packaging, notes Morten Hoffmann Kyed, director of product management at Palsgaard.
Alternatives to sunflower lecithin
For sunflower lecithin, some companies may switch to canola/rapeseed lecithin. This is a suitable replacement as it is non-allergenic and potentially non-GMO, outlines Walsh.
“If allergenicity is not an issue, they may opt for soybean lecithin. Some companies may use other emulsifiers such as mono/diglycerides, lactylates, and diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides (DATEM) as partial functional replacements.”
Palsgaard says it has experienced a dramatic increase in demand for its alternative solution for chocolate, Palsgaard Ammonium Phosphatide (AMP).
However, one challenge is that sunflower oil is the main component in its AMP ingredient.
“We have been able to replace the sunflower oil with rapeseed oil without affecting the quality of the product and are thus ready to meet the exceeding demand for lecithin alternative emulsifiers.”
Hoffmann Kyed points out that the company now has the flexibility to maintain the high functionality of Palsgaard AMP 4458 with more oils.
With this solution, the company says it is able to secure the supply chain, while expanding its capacity of these important ingredients significantly.
Will they go back?
Some suppliers envision brands permanently adopting new ways of working given the crisis, while others anticipate a total rebound to the old paradigm once supplies are secure again.
“Confectionery producers may discover that there are benefits involved in embracing alternatives to sunflower lecithin and sunflower oil,” says Hoffmann Kyed.
“Our AMP ingredient offers several quality and cost benefits compared to lecithin, including no discoloration of white chocolates.”
Rabeler at Sternchemie takes a different stance: “All customers who adapted processing to work without lecithin or moved to artificial emulsifiers will certainly go back.”
“The respective impacts on production performance, costs and label attractiveness are simply too big.”
Rabeler also predicts that “chemically sounding” emulsifiers will continue to disappear from the labels.
Walsh at Corbion notes that there will continue to be interest in finding and developing new emulsifiers that read better on labels and provide novel functionality.
“Manufacturers’ approach will depend on their willingness to modify their ingredient declarations. Shifting demand for emulsifiers and/or emulsifier raw materials to other geographic regions may also put a strain on logistics and manufacturing on those alternative sites.”
Embracing an array of options
For Hoffmann Kyed, the need for emulsifiers worldwide shows no sign of slowing down.
“Globally, the launch of new products using emulsifiers is increasing significantly year by year,” he says..
“Palsgaard already ‘covers’ the emulsifier needs of half a billion people globally, and in the next five years, it is investing more than €125 million (US$133 million) to double its capacity to supply the food industry.”
Amid ongoing demand for the ingredient and its alternatives, suppliers note that manufacturers may adopt a variety of options to stay agile amid supply chain uncertainty.
“If there is one positive effect of the current crisis, it is the gain in knowledge and flexibility,” says Rabeler.
“Manufactures who moved to alternative lecithin solution, such as canola, might stay or at best keep both solutions.”
Hoffmann Kyed agrees that having multiple raw materials as options will help create a more resilient and robust food system, which is critical to maintaining a continual flow of goods.
By Missy Green
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