Used extensively in food applications, lecithin, a natural emulsifier, is mainly obtained from soybeans, although also from palm oil, rapeseed and other crops.
While supplies for non-GM lecithin were relatively smooth in past years when the GM issue had a lower profile, today demand is outpacing supplies.
The European market for Identify Preserved (IP) soybeans (both hard and soft) is estimated at about 40,000 to 60,000 tons for both food and feed.
But the deficit is in the region of 10 per cent, with supplies falling short by about 4,000 tons.
According to market analysts Frost & Sullivan lecithin is the main natural emulsifier (naturals take up 16 per cent of the market, synthetics 84 per cent) in the €307 million European market. The analysts pitched the lecithin market at €49 million in 2003, slightly higher than 2000.
But as the deficit situation continues to take a grip on prices, food manufacturers are on the hunt for alternative emulsifiers.
UK food institute Leatherhead Food Research is calling on food manufacturers to participate in a comparative study of the performance of soya lecithins against non-soya based lecithins, and/or other potential emulsifiers in product applications.
Applications will focus principally on confectionery, chocolate, dressings, sauces and spreads.
"We will investigate all possible food oilseeds, to see If they could work in food applications, and to calculate if they are commercially viable," says Dr. Martin Eeles, principal scientist at Leatherhead.
There are two key criteria: price and availability, Eeles explains to FoodNavigator.com.
Although essentially a scientific study, the research must work within the boundaries of commerce, although price alone is not always a good guide, "and we might miss something", he adds.
In addition to currently approved, commercially available natural emulsifiers, the study will investigate a range of synthetics, using soya lecithin as the control.
According to Leatherhead the emulsifiers will be characterised using a range of physico-chemical techniques including standard whipping and emulsification tests, dispersion tests, phosphorus content, and surface tension measurements.
Non-soya based emulsifiers will be evaluated for their functionality in different product categories - to include fat-continuous (chocolate), water-continuous (dressings) and sugar- continuous (toffee) systems.
"The project will enable manufacturers to switch from soya based ingredients, with a knowledge of any likely associated pitfalls," says Leatherhead.
Industry participants opting to take the project on board - which would mean a financial contribution - would agree on a scope proposal that reflects their interests with Leatherhead, prior to the debut of the study.
Further information about the study, slated to start later this year, can be obtained from Dr. Stuart Clegg, principal food research scientist at Leatherhead.