I predicted a further disruption in the supply of whey proteins at the start of the Ukraine war, and we are now beginning to feel the pressure. A crippling shortage of sunflower oil is causing the impending disruption. Russia and Ukraine collectively produce about 60% of the world’s sunflower supply, with Ukraine exporting half of the world’s sunflower oil supply. They produce nearly 31 million tons annually, compared to the next highest producing country, Argentina, which produces only 3.8 million tons.
How does this relate to whey proteins? During the manufacturing process, sunflower lecithin is added to the whey powder. It is necessary to instantize the powder for it to mix well without clumping. Without lecithin, whey protein is difficult to consume, and consumers will reject it. In the past, soy lecithin was widely used. However, the market has shifted toward sunflower lecithin since it is neither allergenic nor genetically modified, unlike soy, and therefore offers consumers a cleaner label. Non-GMO soy lecithin is in short supply, but it still contains an allergen. It is possible to use lecithin derived from canola oil, but the formulation and stability testing must be conducted first.
There is no more sunflower lecithin available. Many manufacturers are already running low on supplies and preparing their customers for the upcoming shortage. As sunflower becomes scarcer, dairy manufacturers will be compelled to switch to soy lecithin. This will wreak havoc on the entire supply chain.
Manufacturers of dairy products will need to develop new products and specifications and obtain customer approval beforehand. Finished goods manufacturers will be required to approve the new raw material by reformulating their products for taste, mouthfeel, and consistency. Once approved, new Master Manufacturing Records must be created, and labels must be reprinted to reflect ingredient changes, allergen status, and GMO status. This requires both time and money.
The greatest difficulty will be informing consumers of the change to the new version of a previously used product. For consumers who have been consuming sunflower-based whey because they are allergic to soy, the switch poses a health risk. Customers who have been using sunflower lecithin due to its non-GMO status have additional concerns that must be addressed.
Since this time last year, whey protein isolate (WPI) has increased approximately threefold. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) appears to have stabilized at its current peak, which is three times higher than the first quarter of 2021. WPI, on the other hand, is still increasing, and we have no idea when it will stabilize or begin falling. Consumers are increasingly turning away from whey protein in favor of more affordable protein sources.
Egg can be used as a substitute protein source, but there are also supply issues. As a result of the Eurasian H5N1 avian influenza, egg prices are also rising dramatically. The outbreak of this bird flu in Europe, Asia, and Africa began in late 2021 and is ongoing. Europe is experiencing the worst outbreak of bird flu ever recorded. This flu was first detected in the U.S. in January 2022 and has since spread to 32 states. Consequently, more than 36 million chickens and turkeys die. Egg protein will not come to the rescue soon.
Casein, which was not as expensive as whey until recently, is also rising in price. Grass-fed whey is also in high demand. When it comes down to it, whey is still the king of proteins for users of sports supplements, so this supply issue poses a serious threat to the industry. Expect supply shortages and high prices to persist through the end of 2022, as there is currently no indication of when the situation will improve.