The Van Trump Report

Cookies and Cakes Could Soon be Flavored by…Corn?

Bakers out there have likely noticed that the price of real vanilla has skyrocketed the last few years amid a global shortage. The flavoring is essential for many baked goods and can be at least partially blamed for high prices at the grocery store. Santa Barbara based startup Spero Renewables has figured out a way to make a vanilla flavoring from corn which is not only all natural, it also doesn’t suffer from the inconsistent supply issues that have plagued the vanilla market in recent years.    

Madagascar produces approximately 80 percent of the world’s vanilla, but according to the United Nations, the nation has seen an unprecedented number of cyclones in recent years. The most recent, Cyclone Gamane in March struck the country’s main production region, flooding fields and ravaging vanilla vines. This follows production hits the previous four years due to other cyclones and extreme drought.

Food companies have only a handful of options if they want to add vanilla flavor but avoid the volatile pricing of the real thing. These alternatives are known as “vanillin” and are derived from a variety of methods. The one that dominates the market is “artificial vanilla” which is made from petrochemicals and has increasingly been falling out of favor for obvious reasons.

For manufacturers that want or need to use “natural” ingredients, vanillin can be made from ferulic acid in rice bran, as well as cloves, wood pulp, conifers, and even genetically engineered baker’s yeast. However, maintaining the “natural” label depends on how those ingredients are processed, as well as the jurisdiction in which they are sold. For example, GM yeast is not considered natural in some countries.

Spero Renewables, which calls itself a “green chemistry” company, a few years ago figured out how to convert ferulic acid from corn bran into vanillin using bioconversion. After honing their process, the company can go directly from a corn fiber extract to vanillin, a simplified process that cuts out the need for extracting and purifying ferulic acid.

Dr. Ian Klein, Spero’s Chief Technolgoy Officer, says that even in good crop years, natural vanilla is limited in supply and can’t be produced on a scale that keeps up with global demand. What’s more, most sources of rice – the primary source of natural vanillin currently – are located overseas and supply is unpredictable. However, as Klein notes, “Corn fiber is very abundant and we will be able to produce natural vanilla at a much lower cost and a much large scale.”

Spero founder, Dr. Mahdi Abu-Omar, told AgFunder that the company is currently working with a corn milling plant in the Midwest where it aims to demonstrate the company’s tech at pilot scale. “We’re now in conversations with several corn mills, and with one dry corn mill in particular in the Midwest that has a contract with farmers using non-GMO corn, we’re advancing the conversations to be able to do pilot work that will allows us to make tens of pounds of product,” said Abu-Omar.  
Spero is in the process of raising $2 million that it will put toward running the pilot at a larger scale and get more samples to potential customers. They are also in talks with a number of flavor and fragrance companies, as well as b2b ingredient suppliers. According to Abu-Omar, the market for natural vanillin has already been proven, with a growing number of companies willing to pay a premium in order to fulfill their “all natural” labels but unable to pay for the hefty price for real vanilla. Learn more about Spero Renewables HERE. (Source: AgFunder, Forbes)

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