The Story in the Bottle: Supporting Natural
Fragrance and flavor botanicals comprise a niche segment of agriculture. How can they
Victoria Frolova, Bois de Jasmin
Bordered by Thailand, Myanmar, China and Vietnam, northern Laos comprises a mountainous landscape of jungle shrouded in fog. For centuries the ridges
protected the region from both invasion and outside influence.
The medieval Lao capital of Luang Prabang might as well be in
another universe; it takes more than seven hours of driving on
bumpy country roads to reach this city of magnificent temples and
old royal palaces. Today, the high plateaus are home to hill tribes
that practice small-scale agriculture using traditional methods,
but their role in the fragrance and flavor industry is profound.
The northern regions of Luang Prabang, Phongsali, Houaphan
and Oudomxay supply the bulk of the benzoin used in the perfume and flavor manufacture. Benzoin (FEMA# 2132, CAS#
119-53-9) is a balsamic resin obtained from the genus Styrax.
The Laotian resin, tapped from Styrax tonkinensis, is considered
to be of the highest quality, given its unique blend of vanilla, cinnamon and almond facets. In perfumery, benzoin can be found
all over the fragrance wheel, from citrus colognes to orientals.
Classics like Chanel Égoïste and Guerlain Shalimar rely on its
velvety accent, while the addictive richness of this balsamic
note is important for the caramel and chocolate flavors in ice
creams and pastries.
About 200 wild-cropped botanicals used
by the fragrance and flavor industry face a
precarious supply chain.
The collection of benzoin is not
a complicated process—the
incision is made in the bark of
the trees from April to July, and
the benzoin gum is harvested
during the winter months;
however, knowing which
trees to tap and how to shift
the cultivation cycle makes a
difference in yield and quality.
(Photos courtesy of Givaudan.)
Although benzoin is essential for the perfumer’s palette,
the supply chain for this aromatic, as with many key flavor and
fragrance naturals, is extremely fragile. Increasing population
pressure, poor educational facilities, inadequate healthcare and
weak support for agriculture create incentives for rural exodus
in Laos. As whole families move to the cities, they abandon traditional farming, along with benzoin collection. If the market
prices for benzoin drop, the incentives to shift to other more
profitable means of income increase further. The consequence
to the fragrance industry is the loss of an important material.
When Givaudan started its Innovative Naturals program in
Laos in 2009, it immediately became clear that to protect the
supply of benzoin, the company had to offer long-term guarantees
and address the pressing concerns of the farming communities.
Givaudan’s initiative entailed long-term investment in processing equipment and the construction of a secondary school in
Phongsali province to counteract one of the incentives for rural
exodus. With the guarantee of stable income and support, benzoin producers have more incentives to maintain production
and to involve the younger generation in the trade.
A Global Challenge
Benzoin is not the only material with a fragile supply chain;
about 200 wild-cropped botanicals used by the fragrance and
flavor industry are in similar or worse situations.
Urbanization, food crop pressures, new plant diseases and
regulatory issues create challenging conditions for the production of high-quality raw materials. Moreover, fragrance and
flavor botanicals form a niche area of agriculture. In contrast to
the staggering 50 million tons of palm oil being produced annually, essential ingredients like lavender, geranium, vetiver and
ylang-ylang are produced in volumes of just a few hundred tons.