Mitigating sunflower lecithin shortage as “problem” raw ingredient blighted by war
12 Apr 2023 --- Russia and Ukraine are the two largest producers of sunflower seed in the world and the war’s disruption to their combined 50% plus of global production has led to significant price rises for sunflower lecithin. Liquid sunflower lecithin and de-oiled sunflower lecithin powder have spiked three to four times higher than before the war and the price rise shows no sign of abating, according to Kerry.
For the next year or possibly longer, uncertainty will loom large over global sunflower production – and price pressures could reverberate for years to come.
This has led to increased reformulation as brands pivot in the face of the ongoing sunflower lecithin shortage while others look for alternatives with equal functionality.
In an in-depth interview with FoodIngredientsFirst, Tim Cottrell, director of business development for emulsifiers, texturants and acacia, North America, Kerry, delves into the difficulties with raw materials like sunflower lecithin severely impacted by the conflict and how finding clean label alternatives that hit targets on taste, flavor and sustainability, can also come with challenges.
“As the largest, most cost-effective producers are no longer serving the market, smaller regional players like Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, etc. have come back online, but this production covers just a fraction of the existing market. Other regional producers include Spain, other parts of Eastern Europe and South America. South American production generally doesn’t leave the continent. The result is that prices have gone up 3-4 times the pre-war price,” he explains.
Supply chain troubles
Sunflower lecithin is so sought-after because it “ticks all the boxes” in terms of clean label and is known for its emulsification and texturizing properties while being non-GMO and non-soy.
But as the supply chain is under severe strain with no real end, industry players are increasingly looking for alternatives.
The sunflower lecithin situation highlights what can happen when markets rely too much on single ingredients sourced from large dominating market providers.
“This lack of ingredient diversity contributes to increased risk of inflationary pressure and ingredient price volatility when agriculture and farming are disrupted by weather or war, as is happening now. This lack of ingredient diversity puts the food supply chain at risk,” Cottrell continues.
“Sustainability and food supply are at increased risk when global markets are dominated by large, single-source ingredients and it’s important to continue sourcing quality alternatives wherever possible.”
Protection from disruption
Cottrell says customers are approaching Kerry looking for high-functioning ingredients that protect their brand from supply chain disruption and inflationary pressures.
He cites a recent example of a plant-based beverage manufacturer that was experiencing sunflower lecithin ingredient shortage and significantly increased raw material input costs along with general rising production costs.
“A cost-effective, clean-label alternative to sunflower lecithin was required to maintain market positioning and grow their non-GMO plant-based beverage,” he says.
Kerry’s solution is Puremul, which contains only acacia and natural flavor and is hailed as the only 1:1 clean label solution on the market to successfully replace the functionality of sunflower lecithin.
“A whiter colored beverage was achieved along with stability over shelf life and preferred texture and mouthfeel. The impact was 40% cost savings versus de-oiled sunflower lecithin, a stable, sustainable supply and pricing and a consumer-preferred end-product.”
“In this case, Puremul solved an urgent market need for this plant-based beverage customer. Customer feedback has been excellent - Puremul added even further value resulting in a whiter colored beverage with preferred organoleptic properties,” Cottrell notes.
Finding the right alternative
Although other sunflower lecithin alternatives are available, some also come with issues.
In terms of alternatives, there are some possibilities. The next cleanest option is identity-preserved/non-GM canola/rapeseed products – typically from India. However, these ingredients have challenges with availability and flavor. These have a bitter, astringent flavor while sunflower lecithin has a more pleasant, nutty flavor,” Cottrell adds.
However, despite the existing flavor differences, the use of these alternative ingredients has picked up since the sunflower lecithin shortage and price instability.
“Other concerns with alternatives are that the soy and canola/rapeseed versions of lecithin are typically GM, with soy also being allergenic. Alternative clean label starch and protein-based solutions do exist. However, these bring only a portion of the functionality that sunflower lecithin delivers.”
“Another valuable attribute of Puremul is that it successfully replaces mono- and diglycerides across a number of different applications like bakery. Many bakery brands have mono/ and diglycerides on their ‘No No’ list of ingredients, with a commitment to customers that their bread products do not contain this ingredient,” Cottrell flags.
One example is US bakery company Panera Breads.
An increase in plant-based innovations is also leading to increased demand for sunflower lecithin and for alternative clean label ingredients that match its functionality. Kerry has a number of plant-based ingredients that can match sunflower lecithin’s functionality.
Aside from Puremul, Sherex Perform is a clean label liquid solution for replacing liquid sunflower lecithin. It contains canola oil and natural flavor. It is a clean label-releasing agent designed for spray application in slice-on-slice cheese and replaces sunflower lecithin, which is typically used to reduce adhesion between cheese slices.
It can also improve the hydration and solubility of powders in applications such as whey powder, high protein powder, cocoa powder, gum and hydrocolloid blends.
What’s coming next?
Kerry is set to manage the long-term sunflower lecithin replacement challenge with a sharpened focus on its innovation pipeline geared toward overcoming troublesome raw materials and mitigating inflation.
“We also have a Sherex Supreme range of products for locust bean gum replacement. Locust bean gum is another raw material ingredient experiencing significant supply and pricing volatility. We continue to research, innovate and develop valuable, sustainable advances in ingredients and product technologies,” Cottrell concludes.
By Gaynor Selby
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