The demand for natural products is growing, along with consumers’ increasing attention to the environment and their health. Consumers are seeking brand alternatives that help them make better, more responsible choices, whether to reduce landfill waste or select healthier ingredients.
Companies like General Mills, Hershey’s, and Nestlé have heard the message and vowed to eliminate artificial ingredients from foods and replace them with natural ingredients. So say goodbye to your blue Trix cereal and artificially flavored sodas.
The problem is, there isn’t enough natural to go around.
Take vanilla, for example, the most popular flavor on the planet. The flavor comes from a molecule called vanillin, the main compound extracted from the vanilla bean. According to Chemical & Engineering News, about 85% of vanillin is chemically synthesized. Less than 1% actually comes from “real” vanilla, which involves arduous hand cultivation and harvesting from vanilla orchids, mostly in Madagascar.
And just as demand for “real” vanilla is increasing, production is falling. With demand on the upswing, trade in the world’s most popular flavor is way out of balance, and getting worse.
Biology has an app for that
A few weeks ago, Boston-based biomanufacturing company Conagen and global chemical giant BASF announced a new partnership to address this problem. Conagen is lending BASF its expertise in fermentation, the ancient technique used in brewing beer and baking bread that uses microorganisms like bacteria or fungi to convert one substance into another. In this case, Conagen has cultivated a microbe that can take glucose and turn it into the valuable substance vanillin.
Fermented vanillin is the exact same molecule you would get from a vanilla bean. Fermentation has the added advantage of producing pure, reliable ingredients. And because the fermented product is equivalent to what you get from nature, it can be labeled natural flavoring.
With BASF, Conagen will help BASF scale up its vanillin fermentation process, which BASF will market for use in natural flavorings like chocolate, strawberry, and caramel. The partnership will strengthen BASF’s biotechnology in the natural food and flavors ingredients market.
To understand why this is a big deal, you first have to understand who BASF is.
The biggest company you’ve never heard of
BASF is the largest chemical maker in the world, with €63 billion in revenues in 2018. It’s based in Germany but has facilities all over the world, supplying companies in the pharmaceutical, construction, textile, and automotive industries with the chemical building blocks of modern industry. Most of us have never heard of these chemicals, or can even pronounce them, but all of us are probably familiar with one of BASF’s 90,000 partners, including many well-known consumer brands.
Despite its size and global presence, BASF has a low public profile. There’s a great old marketing campaign circa 1991 that captures this very well: “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”
If you ask me, synthetic biology is a lot like that: It doesn’t necessarily change the kind of things you buy, it’s just making them greener, better, and less expensive. Conagen is just the latest example of how companies in this space are disrupting value chains and providing fully integrated solutions to others, making plug-and-play biomanufacturing possible.
The partnership is just one example of how companies like BASF — no. 115 on the Fortune Global 500 — are being transformed by the convergence of tech and bio and the growing bioindustrial revolution.
Vanillin is just a tiny example. There is a huge industrial demand for other flavors, such as orange (valencene) and grapefruit (nootkatone).
Then there’s the fragrance industry, which relies on more exotic scents like musk (muscone), skunk (crotyi mercaptan), and ambergris (ambrox) to create those exquisite fragrance combinations we treasure at the perfume counter. In the old days, it was necessary to kill animals to obtain fragrance ingredients like musk. That’s now illegal, and the development of synthetic musks for the fragrance industry is credited with saving the musk deer from extinction.
Conagen is one of several companies working to meet the demand for natural flavors and fragrances. Many of the biggest flavors and fragrances companies (Firmenich, Givaudan, Robertet, and Takasago among them) are partnering with synthetic biology companies like Ginkgo Bioworks, Evolva, Amyris, and Conagen to produce sustainable ingredients.
This is bigger than food
And even though the entire flavors and fragrances market is estimated at over $20 billion, food is just one small area where synthetic biology can enable us to sustainably biomanufacture precision chemicals. The pharmaceutical industry stands to win, too.
For example, Conagen just launched a glycoprotein platform that could transform the immunotherapy and antibody-drug market — the kind of drugs that help your native immune system better identify and respond to all sorts of diseases, including cancer. This is the category of drugs that includes monoclonal antibodies — a market segment estimated at $100 billion alone.
Conagen’s biotechnology platform would reduce the time and capital to develop these drugs in the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, the technology would reduce costs, and patients reap the savings.
As synthetic biology drives down R&D costs and makes industrial scale-up cheaper and more agile, a new era of pharma will pursue a widening range of diseases — beginning with so-called orphan diseases (affecting 200,000 or fewer people) and continuing to personalized medicine.
Smaller drug companies could also get in on the act.
As Conagen CEO Oliver Yu explained to me, “The R&D at the bench level is only the first part of developing a product. Once you have developed a proof of concept, it’s a long way to go to get to the finished product.” Over the past decade, Yu has built a vertically integrated team of experts in fermentation and industrial biomanufacturing that enable companies with a good idea to scale it to commercial levels.
Yu looks around and sees his industry becoming more product-oriented, and it’s a good sign. “There are companies making probiotics, there are companies using synthetic biology to treat disease, there are companies making DNA and RNA and enzymes to address specific illnesses and health concerns. So there’s a lot we can do.”
“The focus of Conagen is always on the product,” Yu said.
Industry trends in natural ingredients, and the cost of inaction
Companies that are slow to get on the natural ingredients bandwagon may pay a price. Take Johnson & Johnson, which reported a 20% decline in the sales of its flagship baby product brand, with its CFO stating that “it looks like Millennial moms are trying a lot of new organic natural … premium-type brands.” It announced “very robust plans” to relaunch its 124-year-old brand.
Others who have been more sensitive to consumer demand have created their own sustainable product lines. In 2016 Procter & Gamble launched Tide Pureclean, which its CFO said already “holds a 7% share of the pure and naturals segment and is driving over 150% of the natural segment growth.” It recently went a step further in introducing EC30, a wafer-like replacement to liquid cleaners that stands to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale.
Keeping it real
Above all else, some experts believe that transparency and authenticity are key in the natural products market.
Consumers want to know exactly what’s in their products and how they are made. They want to be empowered to make informed decisions for themselves about how well a product represents their lifestyle values. Consumer brands and biotechnology companies must understand those human values and strive to meet them as genuinely as possible, even in the face of our increasingly tech-driven world.
Synthetic biology is delivering consumers new choices that are more sustainable, more efficient, and less expensive. And who knows, they might just be more delicious.
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this post.