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Land and Environment : Agribusiness Assoc. of Australia

Agribusiness Review - Vol. 6 - 1998

Paper 4
ISSN 1442-6951

Opportunities For Lecithin Production in Australia.

David Lambourne and Geoff Covey
Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne


Australia imports approximately 2500 tonnes of lecithin annually, the majority of which is used in the food industry. This paper investigates the opportunities for producing lecithin in Australia. This is performed by examination of the current lecithin market in combination with an analysis of the feasibility of supplying this market with locally produced lecithin. The results indicate that while margarine and chocolate manufacturers are the largest consumer of lecithin imports, the present growth in lecithin demand is being driven by increased milk powder exports. Australia has the raw materials to supply the domestic and regional export markets. However, the feasibility of manufacturing it in Australia will be dependent upon the ability to use canola lecithin as a substitute for existing soy lecithin imports .


Australian processed food exports are forecast to triple by the year 2000 to $20 billion a year, with highly processed food targeted to reach $7 billion ( Button and Crean 1992 ). At present, the Australian food industry is significantly dependent on a large range of imported high value food additives and ingredients. With the expanding base in processed foods, there would appear to be the opportunity to establish a high value added food additive industry in Australia.

Lecithin, an oilseed processing by-product, has been identified as having the potential to be manufactured in Australia.


Lecithin was the name given to pure phosphatidylcholine, however the term is now used to broadly describe the range of phosphatides found in a number of natural sources, including crude vegetable oils.

Phosphatides are constituents of biological membranes, and by their nature are good emulsifiers, containing a fatty acid (lipophilic) and amino (hydrophilic) components. As lecithin is one of the very few edible interface-active agents which are soluble and dispersible in oil, it has found a myriad of food and industrial applications.

The global market for soy lecithin products is approximately 150,000 - 160,000 t/a; of this up to 120,000 t/a is a standard grade lecithin. This accounts for only 40% of the lecithin precursors ( Krawczyk 1996 ). High processing costs and logistical problems have been sighted as reasons why more lecithin is not processed into a commercial form ( Nieuwenhuyzen 1976 ). The majority of available lecithin produced in the oilseed crushing process is returned to the protein meal, increasing its value as animal feed. However, in Australia meal prices are dictated by protein levels alone, and in essence the lecithin by product (containing approximately 50% water) is remixed with the meal to adjust the moisture content towards the maximum allowed.

Increased product development (Szuhaj 1991), combined with heightened consumer awareness concerning the health benefits associated with this natural emulsifier, has lead to a renewed growth in demand for lecithin products ( Anon 1996 ). Growth from new applications has been in addition to growth generated by the expanding food processing industry of developing countries. The large increase in lecithin demand in Indonesian lead to a report into the ‘Prospects of Lecithin Industry and Market in Indonesia' by P.T.Capricorn Indonesia Consult Inc. (1996) . Although this report initiated some industry interest within Australia, no detailed investigation into the production of lecithin has been undertaken.

Imported soybeans account for the majority of soybeans processed locally. The Australian Oilseed Federation (AOF) strategy for Australia to be more self-sufficient in oilseed products should see imports of soybean and their derivatives decline, through the greater usage of canola oil and meal ( McCallum 1996 ). Forecasts for canola production indicate current levels may almost double within 10 years ( Anderson 1996 ). Although canola contains only about half as much lecithin as soybeans, canola lecithin will soon provide the largest proportion of Australia's lecithin precursors.

A number of Eastern European countries have undertaken research into alternative commercial sources of lecithin, including work in Poland ( Bratkowska and Niewiadomski 1975 ) and the former Czechoslovakia ( Cerny 1973 ). The aim of this research was to evaluate the prospects of substituting imported soy lecithin with locally produced rapeseed lecithin.

Interest in non-soy lecithin has appeared again more recently, driven by the growth of sunflower and rapeseed/canola oilseed production. This was the case in Hungary where a new world class sunflower processing facility lead to the initiation of research into the utilization of sunflower lecithin ( Hollo et al. 1993 ). A similar situation led to the growth in the canola industry in Canada and to research by Temelli and Dunford (1995) into canola lecithin.

The growth in the use of high value, highly purified lecithin has attracted interest in utilizing rapeseed lecithin in more specialized areas, with Sosada (1993) and co-workers (1994,1996) conducting research into the purification of rapeseed lecithin for use in pharmaceutical products.


Information was gathered from international trade statistics provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), through a market survey and through industry interviews.

Market Survey.

This study was based upon the Australian market for lecithin. A formal questionnaire was pre-tested though interviews with lecithin importers and then distributed to lecithin sales/marketing managers of all of the known importing agents. To ensure all importing agents were surveyed, known importers were asked to list all competing players in the market. The survey was undertaken in October and November, 1996.

The questionnaire sought information on the lecithin market in terms of segmentation, growth rates, market share, brand, country of origin, product range and order lead time. Respondents were also asked to rank the factors which they considered to be important in the sale of lecithin.

Of the eight known lecithin importers, one declined to respond as they were not presently active importers of lecithin. Two declined due to the low levels of their imports and one declined due to the commercial nature of the information sought. The remaining four agents who did respond supply over two thirds of the market value of lecithin sold in Australia. Telephone follow-ups were conducted with all respondents to aid in survey returns and to clarifying certain responses.

Industry Interviews.

Through on-going research into lecithin production in Australia, a number of interviews and conversations have been conducted with prominent players in the production of the lecithin precursor, namely the oilseed crushers, Cargill and Riverland Oilseed Processors. Major current and potential end users of lecithin, including Meadow Lea Foods, and Cadbury Schweppes have also been involved in this research.

Strategic Analysis

The ‘Total Cost Management' approach to evaluating the feasibility of a new venture was taken through an analysis of the project life cycle ( Medley, 1996 ). This involved incorporating market, industry and technological data into the conceptual design phase of a project in order to produce an optimum solution.

Other strategic management tools, including a SWOT and Industry analysis ( Thompson and Strickland, 1993 ) were utilised to evaluate market and industry data obtained.

Results - Lecithin Imports

Import statistics (Table 1) reflect the size of the lecithin market in Australia. Lecithin is listed under the tariff category: 29232000 - Lecithins and other phosphoaminolipids. Since 1990, the lecithin market has experienced significant annual fluctuations. However, the market overall has increased by an annual average of 7.57% in volume, and 4.25% in value. This compares with an estimated growth of lecithin in the US market of 5% (Anon 1996).

Table 1: Trend of lecithin imports in Australia











































Average growth



* July - January figures standardized to one full year.

Lecithin is imported from a variety of countries which can be divided into two categories: those regions which grow and process their own soybeans, such as the U.S and South America and those countries which process soybeans imported from the U.S or South America, such as Europe and Japan.

The price of lecithin in the international spot market has remained stable from January 1994 to October 1996 at US$0.25-0.28/lb for unbleached lecithin and US$0.31-0.35/lb for bleached lecithin. Australia imports mainly bleached lecithin which, depending on the current exchange rate, is equivalent to A$0.90 - $1.00 per kilogram on the spot market. However, the average actual imported price of lecithin from the North and South America is $2.07/kg and $1.00/kg respectively, and the average price from Europe and Japan is $3.47/kg.

The different average import price from these regions reflects their particular market focus in terms of the lecithin product range produced . South America produces a narrow range of products competing with other suppliers on price. North America produces a wider variety of fluidised and de-oiled lecithin which are seen as of superior quality to South American lecithin. Europe and Japan produce an extensive range of lecithin which includes a highly purified form used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Through a survey of lecithin importers (Table 2), the various companies importing from each country could be traced. The lecithin suppliers in Australia represent some of the world's largest agribusinesses. These include the two large American firms of Central Soya and ADM. Other suppliers include Unimills (a division of Unilever), Sanbra (a division of Bunge) and Ricelands (a large farmer co-operative which processes soybeans). Lucas Meyers, with their company slogan, ‘The Lecithin People', is the only specialist lecithin producing company.

An increase in the US share of the market by 10% over the past year coincides with ADM becoming a direct importer into Australia. In the same period the number of lecithin sources declined, suggesting signs of market rationalisation.

Table 2: Origin of Australian lecithin imports (July 96 - January 97)

Country Tonnes imported Company Import Agent
Brazil 366 Sanbra H.J Langdon and Son.*
Germany 132 Lucas Meyers Bronson and Jacobs.
Netherlands 51 Unimills Robert Bryce and Co.
U.S.A 920 Central Soya H.J Langdon and Son.
ADM ADM(Aust) and ICI(Aust)
Ricelands Scalzo Food Industries.
Japan** 50

* Major importing agent.

** Industry sources indicate that the majority of lecithin imported from Japan was directly imported by an Australian food company which used the lecithin in bakery mixes which it exported back to Japan on a contract basis.

Discussions with lecithin suppliers painted a picture of a market with lecithin as a commodity item, with customers prepared to change suppliers on the basis of the smallest difference in price. The survey results supported this, with price being considered the second most important factor, after quality, which customers considered when making the decision to purchase lecithin (Table 3). Technical service and product range are seen as having a low priority by suppliers, but these two product attributes are necessary for the development of the market through improved formulations and new applications.

Table 3: Relative importance of product attributes

Quality 1.00
Cost 1.75
Reliability 3.25
Lead Time 3.33
Technical Service 5.00
Customer Service 6.00
Product Range 7.00

* The lower the score the more important the product attribute. 

These results indicate that the majority of lecithin suppliers are essentially only importing agents with no specialised knowledge or loyalty to any of the products they sell. Lecithin accounts on average for less than 5% of the suppliers total sales, and three of the four suppliers surveyed stocked items directly competing with lecithin products. Even if a customer wanted to pursue product development, a large proportion of lecithin products are not stocked within Australia and there is a lead time of up to 12 weeks when placing an order.

Suppliers have acknowledged that their lack of development work in providing information on cost effective formulations using new lecithin products, is one of the factors constraining the expansion of the lecithin industry. But they also point out that many customers have a lack of knowledge of the applications and functionality of lecithin products and are reluctant to shift from their existing formulations.

Market Segmentation

Lecithin has a wide range of different food and industrial applications. A market survey of lecithin agents identified the following products which use lecithin in Australia:

Animal Feeds, Instant Foods, Margarine, Petroleum Products, Confectionery, Pharmaceuticals, Baking Products, Sliced Cheese, Chocolate, Cosmetics/Shampoo, Release Agents, Milk Powder, Dehydrated Foods, Paints, Plastics, Magnetic Tapes, Ice Cream, Health Foods, Cereals.

The margarine industry is the largest user of lecithin with approximately 480 tonnes consumed each year. Australian lecithin distributors considered the chocolate and confectionery industry as being the largest with estimates given of over 600 tonnes per annum. However, these estimates were not consistent with figures derived from ABS data on chocolate production, which were also confirmed by the largest chocolate producer, Cadbury Schweppes. The discrepancy is likely to have come from the estimated level of lecithin used in chocolate. Literature indicates that chocolate contains 0.3 - 0.5% of lecithin. Industry usage in Australia is considered to be not greater than 0.3%. The variation in the level of lecithin in chocolate formulations corresponds to the variation in types of chocolate (e.g. milk and bittersweet chocolate) and their end uses (e.g. cooking, block or tray).

The dramatic growth of the dairy industry in Australia has seen usage of lecithin used for full cream milk powder and infant formulation grow by an annual average of 13% between 1991 and 1996. The recent capital investment in the dairy industry in Victoria alone ( Collis 1996 ) should ensure continual growth of lecithin use in this market segment. The opening Bonlac's new 60,000 tonnes milk powder processing plant in Victoria in early 1998 represents the equivalent of a further demand of 120 tonnes of lecithin, suggesting that milk powder may have already become the largest end user of lecithin in Australia.

The growth in the health food market, estimated at approximately 10% p.a. by industry sources, is significant due to the high value of the lecithin used in this sector, with a large proportion of de-oiled and purified lecithin consumed.

Table 4: Major market segments and growth of lecithin products in Australia (1991 - 1996)

Usage tonnes/year Growth % p.a. Growth tonnes/year Source
Chocolate/Confectionery 360 3 10.8 ABS/Industry*
Margarine 480 0 0.0 ABS/Industry
Milk Powder 360 13 46.8 ABS/Industry
Baked Goods 280 0 0.0 Industry**
Health 200 10 20.0 Industry
Aquaculture 20 10 2.0 Industry
Cosmetics 100 0 0.0 Industry
Industrial 100 0 0.0 Industry
Total 1900 4.2% 79.6

* 1991-1996 ABS data.

** Estimates based on current market survey.

The aquaculture industry, and in particular shrimp farming has enjoyed healthy growth. Ridley Agrifoods, the supplier of feed to this sector reported 10% p.a growth over the last five years. While sales in this industry are at present small, the industry is in its infancy and its growth potential is large.

No Growth has been experienced in the baked goods sector, with lecithin it finding it difficult to compete with the more purpose specific products on the market. The new use of highly purified lecithin for flavour encapsulation in bakery products is gaining acceptance in overseas markets. Such innovations are yet to be embraced by the Australian market, but it should be noted that high value lecithin is incorporated into bakery mixes which are produced on a contract basis for the Japanese market.

Australia's Potential Lecithin Production

An estimate on the amount of lecithin which could be derived from the oilseed crushing process may be made from Australian crude vegetable oil production and composition data ( White 1996 , Smiles et al. 1989 ). As Figure 1 shows, the estimated 1997/8 total potential supply of lecithin is over 4500 tonnes. The majority of growth in potential lecithin supply has been through the increase in canola seed crushed in the period between 1987/8 and 1994/5. Future forecasts predict a continuing increase in canola seed crushed, with soybean and sunflower seed levels remaining static or in decline.

 Figure 1: Australia's Potential Lecithin Supplies.

image14.gif (5579 bytes)

Source: ( White 1996 , Smiles et al 1989 )

Due to the rapid decomposition of the hydrated lecithin by-product from oilseed crushing, it is usual for the product to be immediately processed on site. Three of the largest crushing plants in Australia which process both canola and soybean are the two Cargill plants, at Footscray and Newcastle, and the Riverland Oilseed Processor's plant at Numurkah.

All these plants process both canola and soybeans (in roughly equal amounts), and a small amount of sunflower seed is occasionally processed. The Numurkah and Footscray plants are considered small by world standards, but the recently finished Newcastle plant is classed as a medium sized plant ( Hillman and Faminow 1987 ).

Despite the relatively small size of crushing plants in Australia, evidence from overseas would suggest that smaller size lecithin operations are still feasible. As indicated in Figure 2, Indian lecithin plants are of a similar size to those potentially available in Australia. While most of the lecithin produced in India was for local production, Surya Agroils Ltd. has exported quantities of lecithin to neighbouring countries and to the lecithin manufacturer Lucas Meyers in Europe.

Figure 2: A comparison of size (and potential size) of lecithin plants in Australia and India

image15.gif (4686 bytes)

Despite, Cargill's soybean processing capacity being comparable with those of Central Soya, ADM and Bunge (Marion and Kim 1991), it has not entered into the lecithin market. However, Cargill Australia has indicated that if Cargill was to begin to become involved in lecithin production, the Australian market would be an attractive place to start. The reasoning behind this is that Cargill has a dominant position in Australian oilseed crushing, with over 80% of the market ( White 1996 ). Riverland has also indicated interest in processing lecithin, but like Cargill is cautious of entering a field outside their core area of business.

With partnerships, strategic alliances and joint ventures becoming an integral part of the restructuring of agribusiness ( Boehlje, Akridge and Downey 1995 ), the developments of new products like lecithin may require the involvement of a number of agribusiness players. Central Soya has acknowledged that the growing diversity of the market has made it vital for it to form strategic alliances with small high technology companies which are better equipped to service the needs of the market place ( Swanson 1989 ). Indeed pharmaceutical and specialty chemical producers have formed strong alliances with the major oilseed crushers, including Cargill, in the production of various food additives, tocopherols or vitamin E being the most notable.


The Australian lecithin market could be described as being supplied by a relatively large number of importing agents who regard lecithin as a commodity and have little interest in developing the existing market. Aggressive price competition would not be expected in a relatively small market which already has low profit margins. However, with its history of aggressive market behaviour, the opening of the Australian branch of ADM represents a significant threat to the development of a local industry.

The optimum strategy for an emerging local producer would be to exploit the weaknesses of the current market. A local supplier who specialized in lecithin production and its applications would have the ability to expand the existing market significantly. This could be achieved via the substitution of lecithin with competing food additives and the development of new markets.

Lecithin in its natural and modified forms may compete directly with other food additives, in particularly mono-diglyercides (MDG) and egg yolk. Lecithin in many cases is more cost effective and has the advantage of being a ‘natural' ingredient. Recently, Meadow Lea Foods changed its formulation on some margarine brands to exclude MDG, leaving lecithin to act as the sole emulsifier and anti-splattering agent.

In the course of this research, preliminary discussions have taken place to investigate the potential use of lecithin in pet food, animal feed and in agricultural chemical adjutants. With the vast array of end applications there would appear to be significant growth potential in the domestic market. Lecithin growth in the food processing industries of neighboring Asian countries is strong, e.g. Indonesia experienced growth in lecithin demand at over 31% p.a between 1990 and June 1996. The very fact that lecithin is produced locally and is readily available on a short lead time can be expected to stimulate growth in its use (c.f the example of fertilizer production and use in Iceland ( Rudd and Watson 1978 ))

The literature suggests that lecithin produced from canola and sunflower is of inferior quality to soy lecithin in terms of either colour, taste and/or consistency ( Persmark 1972 , Hollo et al. 1993 ). However a large range of applications do not require the critical colour specifications due to the small amount of lecithin used in these formulations. Sunflower and canola lecithin has been commercially used for both chocolate and margarine production, two of the largest end-use markets for lecithin. Also, as the functional properties of lecithin are dependent on its composition, the specific compositions of canola and sunflower lecithin may result in functionality more suitable than soy lecithin for certain applications ( Smiles et al. 1989 ).

The small usage of non-soy lecithin would seem to be the consequence of the more ready availability of mass produced soy lecithin in markets which could potentially produce other oilseed derived lecithin. This is certainly the case with the Canadian canola industry, which borders the homelands of the America's largest lecithin producers. In Eastern Europe, insulation from Western imports up until the late 1980's enabled sunflower and rapeseed lecithin industries to emerge. However with the opening up of these economies and the privatisation of industry, soy lecithin emerged as the European standard and sunflower and canola lecithin is now used predominantly in animal feed.

In the past decade consumers have been made to become more sophisticated in their knowledge of fats and oils. The source of much of this new found information has been through advertising aimed a selling the virtues of one particular oil over another. In Australia, the Australian Margarine Association together with the AOF have campaigned to promote the benefits of canola oil ( Bower 1996 ). As a consequence, canola margarine commands a premium and has increased brand loyalty (Australian Dairy Corporation 1996). Lecithins can also be differentiated in a similar way to the oils from which they are derived. Canola lecithin has the lowest level of saturated fatty acids, while sunflower lecithin has the highest choline content ( Smiles et al. 1989 ).

Owing to the conservative nature of the public in regard to food production, innovation in the food industries is considered incremental and is strongly influenced by the sales and marketing departments ( Galizzi and Venturini 1996 ). The use of canola lecithin as a substitute for the existing imported soy lecithin is likely to occur as a result of a marketing ploy strategy to differentiate a product, rather than due to its price or functionality alone.

In the course of our research, small quantities of lecithin were produced for trials within industry. Meadow Lea Foods trailed canola lecithin to produce a small batch of margarine, at their pilot plant in Sydney. Preliminary results were positive. Initial tests in cooperation with Cadbury Chocolates has shown that domestically produced soy, canola and sunflower lecithin all compare favourably with the performance of imported soy lecithin. 


Australian lecithin usage in the margarine, chocolate, dairy and baking industries dominates a fragmented market in which there are over 20 different applications. Although the present market size is comparatively small, solid growth in it may make local lecithin production an attractive proposition.

Australia's oilseed crushing capacity is sufficient to economically produce lecithin, if both canola and soybean feedstock is utilised. Although commercial production of canola lecithin for food use is small, preliminary industry tests confirm that quality is not an inhibiting factor for it to gain market acceptance. A local manufacturer would need to specialise in lecithin applications to both expand the existing market and minimise direct price competition from existing importers.

The major constraints in producing lecithin locally lie with the structure of the oilseed crushing industry in particular, and the food processing industry as a whole. The Australian Oilseed Federation is focused upon the development of a commodity based industry and unfortunately lecithin production is not in their field of reference. Industries within this sector are not readily equipped to produce lecithin or develop its market.

Also, the increasing concentration within the Australian food processing industry, primarily through acquisition, has reduced the number of small and medium sized companies with the necessary dynamism to start manufacturing a new product to start a new industry.

Future Work

To aid in evaluating the feasibility of producing lecithin in Australia, future work is aimed at performing a more detailed cost analysis into lecithin production, including the evaluation of alternate processing technologies. At present, the lecithin processing industries of India and Eastern Europe are being evaluated, due to their relevance to the Australian industry in terms of market size and type of lecithin processed.

The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support for this work provided by the Advanced Engineering Centre for Manufacturing.


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