Demand for ‘natural’, along with growing consumer awareness and health & wellness, have been driving new product development and reformulations for a number of years now.
“I would say that in the food sector, ‘natural’ is a given,” says Duffy. “Consumers simply expect natural ingredients now.”
The perception that natural ingredients are better for both personal health and the environment has only been enhanced by the Covid 19 pandemic. Growing demand for organic food is tied in with this ‘natural’ trend; the organic market in France for example has doubled over the past five years.
Indeed, consumers - who often educate themselves about specific nutrients and diets – are increasingly clear about what they want: natural, authentic ingredients that contribute to health & wellness, and which are sourced in a transparent and sustainable manner.
“All these trends are linked,” says Duffy. “Consumers like the idea of being able to read a label and understand each ingredient. And of course, demand for local regional food ties in with this idea of being able to visualise the whole supply chain.”
Natural vanillin demand
About five years ago, this demand for ‘natural’ had a dramatic impact on one highly sought-after commodity: vanilla. Grown exclusively in very specific hot, tropical microclimates (80% of world production comes from a small corner in Madagascar), the vanilla orchid cannot withstand intensive cultivation, and must be pollinated and harvested painstakingly by hand. As a result, only so much vanilla can be produced – about 2 000 tonnes a year.
“For years, vanilla cost about $ 25/ kg a year,” explains Duffy. “The ‘natural’ trend however resulted in a massive surge in demand for natural flavours, and thus for natural vanilla.”
Along with other issues such as crop damage due to hurricanes, etc., the price of vanilla shot up to around $ 500 a kilo.
This drove food companies and flavour houses to look for natural alternatives. Natural vanillin quickly emerged as a cost-effective, clean label alternative.
“The seeds in a vanilla pod contain many substances and molecules that impart flavour,” says Duffy. “The main one however is vanillin, which only makes up about 1 to 1.5 % of dried cured vanilla. That means just 20 tonnes of vanillin is theoretically produced by cultivation every year, while demand exceeds 20 000 tonnes.”
Demand therefore consistently far outstrips what nature can provide.
The natural vanillin produced at industrial scale provide exactly the same flavour and performance profile as vanillin molecules that exist in nature. A key difference is that they are price competitive, and not subject to unforeseen supply chain complications.
This makes natural vanillin highly attractive to address reformulation challenges, and for new product development.
“This has happened in other fields,” says Duffy. “A shortage of an ingredient has led industry to innovate, to find natural alternatives.”
Food sector circularity
Solvay’s Rhovanil® Natural CW is designed to meet current market demands. This natural vanillin range can be labelled as natural flavour in EU and US and natural vanillin flavour in the US.
“This product has boomed over the past few years,” says Duffy. “We increased capacity in 2018, and are looking to expand our operations further in order to meet future market demand - the natural vanillin market has doubled over the last four years.”
Another plus is the sustainable manufacturing process behind the ingredient. This starts with GMO-free rice cultivated in Asia, from which rice bran is extracted. After rice bran oil is taken out – a healthy olive oil-like substance that features extensively in Asian diets – a by-product is left behind, that would typically be treated as waste.
“Instead, this by-product with no nutritive value for human consumption is processed to extract ferulic acid, a natural compound. This is then fermented, to obtain purified natural vanillin in powder form. The process is completely sustainable and circular, and fits very much with our company’s focus on developing new business models that valorise, recycle and upcycle ingredients.”
Flavour houses are increasingly using natural vanillin, as are food companies.
“It is easy to switch from synthetic vanillin to natural vanillin,” says Duffy. “Manufacturers do not have to worry about reformulation, as natural vanillin delivers exactly the same profiles and performance.”
In an environment where consumers are increasingly self-aware and interested in personal health as well as the wellbeing of the planet, sustainably produced natural vanillin looks like an ideal fit.