Crop failures around the world put the squeeze on the availability of sought-after ingredients. A poor growing season last year in Madagascar has resulted in shortages and higher prices for vanilla, as well as diminished the quality of the product as many plants were harvested early. Madagascar produces most of the world’s vanilla supply.
Another sought-after ingredient is the Cavendish banana, which is plagued by a lethal fungus in various locations throughout the world, threatening the world’s commercial supply of bananas. There are looming citrus shortages, where the citrus greening disease has decreased crop production, resulting in increases for the prices of citrus oils and juice concentrates.
Food manufacturers have options when it comes to overcoming ingredient shortages and price increases, Kevin Appel, associate culinary director, Sterling-Rice Group Inc., told Food Dive. These include substituting other fruits or grains to create similar results, by using flavor extenders for ingredients such as vanilla, cocoa, maple and honey, or by developing new flavors from the same compounds.
Michael A. DeAngelis, nutrition director at Porter Novelli, told Food Dive there is a broader piece to consider when it comes to ingredient shortages. It relates to the "self-inflicted" disappearance of some ingredients altogether if the food industry doesn’t begin to control the narrative on ingredients.
Existing and emerging shortages
Vanilla prices rose, a predictable response to the shortage. This means there are higher prices for foods like ice cream, a popular indulgence especially as summer approaches. One approach to overcome the challenge is to use vanilla flavor and blend in flavors such as maple and other brown flavors like caramel, Appel said.
Shortages of popular ingredients such as vanilla, bananas and citrus, are joined by dark chocolate. It continues to appear as an ingredient in snacks of all kinds and on menus because it has a perceived health halo around it. The growth of dark chocolate is more than a trend. "It is a healthy ingredient that can be incorporated into snack foods, into food coatings and of course, desserts," Appel said. "And we have climate issues such as El Nino affecting harvests; and we have political and subsidy issues in countries such as Ghana [impacting both cocoa and coffee]." In Southeast Asia, cool, rainy weather followed by dry weather last year affected many crops, including cocoa.
In regard to flavor substitutes, for example with bananas, Appel said the first thing that comes to mind is what other fruits can be used. "With agriculture and with trees specifically, it can take years to build up a crop to make up for the loss," he said.
One alternative is cherimoya, or custard apple, grown in Central America and South America, which has a banana type quality and flavor. The pawpaw also offers a custard-like, creamy, and starchy composition similar to bananas.
In regard to future ingredient shortages, Appel offers food for thought in regard to coconut. The water comes from the center of a green coconut and there are only so many coconuts in the world. "As we consume more of this water, are food companies developing alternatives to the real thing?" Appel asked. He can see supply shortages because coconut continues to be a hot ingredient, increasingly appearing on restaurant menus, as an example.
In regard to overcoming citrus shortages, Appel stated that while natural citrus flavors offer an alternative, pineapples can also serve as an alternative to the use of orange juice in recipes and formulas, as pineapples are both tart and sweet.
DeAngelis said manufacturers must understand what the environment looks like in regard to any ingredient or product they are producing. He advised developing a strategy, a narrative, in order to address any issues. "They have to get the conversations started," DeAngelis added.
If not, DeAngelis believes the use of certain ingredients will begin to disappear, including GMOs, preservatives and additives, and sugar and salt. This would create many obstacles in the food industry, namely food safety and the palatability of foods.
"If we can’t get a handle on the anti-GMO voice, we will lose crops that will disappear forever because we are not willing to look at how technology can help us create breeds with attributes that will help these crops survive," DeAngelis said. In regard to agricultural commodities, if companies "don’t look at solutions for climate, disease infestations, for growing conditions, from a GMO lens, than we should be prepared not to have foods that we like or that we want."
He noted companies may begin to abandon GMOs and look for different paths because consumers are demanding it. However, "I don’t think the consumer data is there, per se," he added. Further, after testing for a couple of decades, major regulating agencies agree that the use of GMOs are not a health or safety concern.
"Sometimes we are looking for simple answers to complex problems," DeAngelis said. "Health and nutrition — getting food healthy — is not that simple. It is not a matter of take this out or add this in."
"We have to be creative; as a chef I try to understand the function as well as the flavor of an ingredient," Appel said. "What is the benefit it brings to the food and to the consumer and the functionality it brings to the recipe? We have to be creative in finding alternative ingredients."