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The warm and fuzzy push by consumers for bio based ingredients has a dark side: natural doesn’t always mean sustainable. Sandalwood oil is one example.

Essential-oil producers steam-distill the fragrance ingredient—which has a rich herbal scent reminiscent of hops, eucalyptus, and Angostura bitters—from shredded sandalwood trees. The trees become richer in oil as they grow older and are harvested when they are between 15 and 30 years old.

But demand has grown faster than the trees themselves, leading to unsustainable cultivation practices and even illegal harvesting of trees from protected woodlands in Australia, India, and Hawaii.

In July of this year, the firms launched a microbially derived sandalwood oil replacement they call IsobionicsSantalol. Isobionics also ferments several other aromatic compounds, mostly related to citrus.

Traditional sandalwood oil gets its scent primarily from two compounds, α-santol, and β-santalol. The α form of the aromatic alcohol generally dominates at around 55% of the mix, with the β version at around 25% and other related compounds making up the balance. BASF says its fermentation process yields α- and β-santalol in a ratio similar to what’s in sandalwood oil. IsobionicsSantalol “represents the heart note of sandalwood oil and makes it a close alternative to sandalwood oil”.

Indeed, although a well-engineered synthesis can yield a precise chemical product with minimal waste and cost, Symrise’s Prigge says fermentation is growing in popularity as a way to produce flavor and fragrance molecules in part because of the marketing advantage it has over chemical synthesis.


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