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It is one of the most important ingredients in nearly every savory dish worldwide, bringing both spice and sweetness. For Symrise, it is also a shining example of efficiency: the onion. The company purchases the vegetable from the surrounding vicinity, making long-term agreements with suppliers while minimizing transport, storage and energy costs. In the end, the onion is in roughly 8 % of all Symrise products and is therefore one of our top raw materials.

  • Photos Marcus Pietrek
  • Text Marc-Stefan Andres

20 hectares of harvested onions, reaching as far as the eye can see. Markus Stukenbrock grabs one of the best-looking brown specimens, opens his knife and slices through the peel and white flesh. “Looks good,” he says and hands the fist-sized sample to Dr. Felix Schuppert. The Symrise employee responsible for purchasing agricultural raw materials wipes a little dirt from the dry outer layer. He examines the onion from every side, nodding in agreement. A high-quality onion.

One of Symrise’s most important natural raw materials is grown here in Bisperode, a town of 1,300 residents located just 40 kilometers from the company’s headquarters in Holzminden. The company uses the onion in 8 % of its roughly 30,000 products – directly as onion juice concentrate or as a base mate­rial for ­flavors used in innumerable savory products. Felix Schuppert purchases over 5,000 tons in the fall of 2013 in order to have 15 months’ worth of raw materials available. A major portion of these come from Stukenbrock. “We calculate an adequate buffer into our planning because we are working with a natural resource that is subject to weather-related cultivation and harvest fluctuations.”

Demand for onion products is constantly rising – as are the purchase quantities. Symrise has been developing products from the crop for more than 60 years. The end products are sold predominantly in Europe, but also in other markets as well. Markus Stukenbrock is one of Symrise’s main suppliers of onions. He entered into a six-year contract with the company in 2011. “Planning security is very important for us,” says the 32-year-old, who runs the family farm together with his father and two local colleagues as a farming cooperative. The partnership’s long-term nature is also seen in the example of his predecessor, who filled orders for the company for over 20 years and later helped Stukenbrock take over. “He ended operations here in the region, but helped me through the transition phase for more than a year,” he explains.

Sustainable Farming

Along with two other suppliers, the agricultural economist grows Sturon onions, which proved to be the most suitable onion species for the local conditions in and around Holzminden according to a joint research project by Symrise and the University of Hohenheim. The land Stukenbrock uses for growing onions consists of about 80 hectares: “We rotate our crops with wheat, potatoes, sugar beets and onions, which are only planted every seven years.” The GAP-certified farm, which stands for “good agricultural practices,” does this to avoid over-farming the soil. When order quantities rise, Markus Stukenbrock can call on colleagues from the region to help meet demand. “We change hectares every year to allow for the best possible soil maintenance.” After the harvest, Stukenbrock stores the vegetables in a large warehouse, which is equipped with an onion dryer, in order to respond as accurately as possible to Symrise’s production needs. He had the warehouse built specifically for the Symrise contract. “This kind of investment is only possible when you have a fair and reliable partner.” Felix Schuppert shares that viewpoint. “We benefit from this arrangement as well, as we receive a product that is traceable and provides supply security. It also allows us to distance ourselves somewhat from fluctuating market prices,” says the Symrise purchaser. The contract between the parties also facilitates a special partnership, with Symrise making assurances to cover unforeseeable price increases in diesel, insurances or fertilizer while also retaining the opportunity to benefit from falling prices.

Short Supply Routes, Low Energy Consumption

The onions travel from Markus Stukenbrock’s warehouse to Holzminden by truck through the winding roads of the Weser country­side. The trip is short and fuel consumption accordingly minimal. The truck stops next to a plain warehouse in the middle of the factory site. An employee peeks through a small window into the green bed of the truck to quickly confirm its contents. He gives a sign and the driver uses the hydraulic controls, allowing 25 tons of onions to slide off the bed into the storage clamp. The eval­uation begins: A maximum of 2 % of the onions can be damaged. Similarly, only a small percentage of soil or other substances found on fields is accepted. “If we find a higher than acceptable share of undesirable materials, the entire shipment has to be ­returned. These factors can impair the effectiveness of our processes – for instance if lactic acid levels are too high due to too many spoiled onions,” says Steffen Grothe. The raw material also has to be “crackle dry,” explains the Symrise competency man­ager for vegetables.

Grothe supervises the entire value chain, develops new product concepts and advises key customers, who are increasingly interested in sustainable processes. Symrise is a good partner in that regard. “Our production processes use 100 % of the vegetable,” says Grothe. In practice, it looks something like this: The onions roll along a conveyor belt into the Symrise production halls. There they are washed, ground and pressed. Only a whitish, dry pulp is left, which is put into containers and will later wind up in biogas plants. The precious juice, however, flows into the three-part condensation system, which removes most of the water from the liquid. Next, the Symrise technology SymTrap® removes the final volatile aroma components and saves them for later use.

The main product is a golden, honey-like syrup, which Steffen Grothe displays in a small jar in his hand: onion juice concentrate. More than 500 tons of it will result from ten times as many tons of onions – pure, natural and without any additives. And it has the classic sweet-spicy scent of freshly cut onions. “One advantage of the product is its long shelf life, which allows us to forgo elaborate cooling processes,” says Steffen Grothe. “This saves us a great deal on energy and related costs – representing a considerable contribution towards sustainability.”

The Culinary Approach

The onion juice concentrate can be shipped off to customers after passing an exact quality control inspection. It can be delivered in pure form or as one of the many onion flavors made from the concentrate. When it comes to searching for new applications for key customers, Harry Weber is the man for the job. However, the Symrise chef doesn’t initially work with the onion products to achieve this aim. Instead, he starts with the culinary approach, working in multitasking mode. The 51-year-old steams an entire onion until it is nearly transparent, while turning up another burner in the Symrise test kitchen and moving a deep pan with onions wrapped in batter into the heat. A few seconds later, he turns a prime rib in a marinade while glancing at another pot simmering onions with cardamom and sake. The ingredients for “prime beef with onion medley” as he calls it. “The dish is intended to inspire our customers and show them the diversity and flexibility of onions,” says Weber, who used to cook in restaurants and hotels around the world before starting his career in the industry.

The chef works in application technology, which is responsible for nearly all savory products – dried soups, sauces, instant foods, frozen foods, fish and meat preparations and mayonnaises. Onions that are roasted, fried, grilled, smoked, broiled or sautéed in butter have their place in 95 % of all applications – usually as a flavor carrier or base material for various foods. “Without the onion, we wouldn’t have a lot of dishes,” says Weber, who doesn’t tire of talking about fresh, green, spicy, sweet, buttery, lightly cooked, dark, roasted or slightly bitter onion notes.

In the case of his prime beef dish, he is using various ways of preparing onions to give everything that perfect flavor. If the end result of a creation tastes as good as he imagines, the recipe is passed on to the flavorists who aim to recreate the core flavors with various natural materials such as onion juice concentrate, essential onion oils and other flavors. These two teams work closely, as is seen in the way Harry Weber later tests the flavors that the flavorists develop based on natural products – assessing, for instance, whether the flavor functions in various mixtures, remains stable or maintains its flavor in preserves that undergo ultra-high temperature processing.

100 %

Nearly 100 % of the onion is used by Symrise during the process: The juice is used to make concentrate and flavors, while volatile flavor components are recovered with the Symrise technology SymTrap®. The leftover dry mass is used as fuel for a biogas plant.

Close Cooperation in Product Development

The departments are also located close to one another: Laurence Guibouret and her flavorist colleagues are only one door down the hall. Every wall in the food technologist’s office is covered with shelves that go up to the ceiling, which are filled with plastic containers holding various flavors. The French native is mixing a roast chicken marinade using a dozen powders and a recipe printed on a piece paper that she has placed next to her. Though perhaps only a small amount is used, one of the more than 50 onion flavors that Symrise uses daily in the laboratory will wind up in this product.

“We dissolve the mixture in salty, lukewarm water which allows the flavor to develop,” says the chemical lab technician, who was trained as a flavorist at the renowned ISIPCA Institute in Versailles. Once the mixture is fully dissolved, it’s time for a sampling: Taste, after all, plays a major role in her work. With the help of gas and thin-layer chromatographs as well as mass spectrometers, hundreds of flavors can be detected in a single food. Finding the little nuances that make the difference, however, requires a human touch. The challenge her job poses is constantly growing, says Laurence Guibouret. “We are using an increasing number of natural base materials, always paying close attention to possible allergens and, of course, the price factor for our products as well.”

Trends and Experiences as Idea Generators

Laurence Guibouret spends a great deal of time with new products in cooperation with the application technology and marketing teams. “We use events like the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil as inspiration,” adds her colleague Annegret Mönnikes. The office of the Head of Application Technology, who also manages the test kitchen, is also located in the same hallway. “We offer our customers a wide range of products that have a local flavor: from meat marinades and seasoning pastes to delicatessen salads.” Market research also is playing an increasingly important role at Symrise by analyzing global trends and incorporating these into products.

An important part of their work: Fulfilling customer wishes to replace certain raw materials, for example. “If a customer has been using onion powder, but now wants to switch to a stand­ardized flavor due to availability, quality or pricing reasons, they wind up talking to us,” says Annegret Mönnikes. Ideally, the customers send their initial base formula for products like bouillon cubes or instant soups. The application technicians test these products in order to meet the requested standards and keep costs as low as possible. “The process sounds very simple, but it really is quite complex as personal preferences play an ever expanding role.” After all, everyone along the value chain agrees: The flavor experience is always the most important.