Clarkson Soy Champaign plant produces organic lecithin
You have eaten it many times but you probably never noticed: Lecithin. It’s in almost every product we eat – chocolate, bread, baby formula, protein powder, non-dairy creamer, ice cream, cookies – anything that needs oil and water to mix together to make something delicious. Usually the smallest component in the ingredient list (normally just 1 percent of any recipe), lecithin packs a big punch when it comes to perfecting a recipe. The Clarkson Soy Company of Champaign supplies it in an organic formula that is unique to the marketplace, allowing food producers to go purely organic for every ingredient.
“Clarkson is the only North American organic lethicin producer, which makes us a very special niche market producer,” Clarkson Soy Vice President Curtis Bennett explains. “Our lethicin is all natural, non-GMO and we produce without using chemical solvents.”
That means companies from all over the world that want a completely organic product but still want to use an emulsifier can turn to Clarkson Soy.
“We compete and lead in this niche,” Bennett says. “One of our first sales was to a South Korean infant formula company.”
Organic lecithin production has been going on since January 2004, originally produced in Cherokee, Iowa, where it is still produced today. Champaign is now the second Clarkson Soy facility that produces the organic lecithin, along with a plant in Cerro Gordo.
Clarkson Soy sells internationally and domestically by the truckload, to big factories and small independents. Buyers will call and request quantities from 10-pound packages to 450-pound drums of the liquid. The busiest times are around the holidays, when candies are typically made, since candy can have lethicin in a coating, a shell and a filling. Clarkson Soy allows a producer to claim 100-percent organic ingredients down to the last item on the list, which is usually lecithin.
The Champaign plant, not even one year old, has five employees who run a plant full of massive automated steel equipment. The strict controls over cleanliness and production mean a visitor cannot just walk out onto the factory floor, but the huge gleaming tanks and the pristine “clean room” can be seen through glass windows in the main building. The emphasis is on producing a safe, natural food product, which to a visitor looks like thick brown honey when a sample jar of lecithin is opened. Curtis Bennet gives the small jar a smell.
“I can tell immediately from the smell if it’s made naturally or chemically,” he says. “Chemicals give it a metallic smell.”
“Rub some on your hand,” Bennett suggests to the visitor.
She does so, and the thick, slightly sticky brown liquid immediately is absorbed.
“It makes your skin soft,” Bennett observes.
It’s true, it does.
Lethicin is an emulsifier. It makes oil and water come together, which helps ingredients dissolve in water or to keep a product like a cookie or chocolate bar from crumbling or cracking. It was discovered in egg yolks in the 19th century and has been used ever since in a wide array of food products. Lethicin can be made from any seed that has an oil component. Clarkson Soy makes theirs out of soybeans, and as an alternative for those with food allergy concerns, from sunflower seeds.
Vice President Curtis Bennett is no stranger to organics. He started farming organic row crops in 1994, after wind drift pesticides from a neighboring farm destroyed an entire vegetable crop he was growing.
“I decided right then to become one of those guys and show them that row crops could be grown without pesticides,” he says.
He soon was sold on growing things organically and got others in on the idea, organizing more than 200 farmers into an organic agricultural cooperative.
He took over a budding organic lecithin project in spring 2002 in Cerro Gordo for Clarkson Soy and spent the next couple of years getting that facility operational. In June 2017 he moved to Champaign to oversee the construction project of the Champaign facility.
“At some point in the future I will return to the main office in Cerro Gordo and devote more focus on sales for the Champaign facility along with future business development for our division,” he says.
Curtis’s son Peyton Bennett now runs the operations for the Champaign plant, which requires a tremendous amount of oversight to uphold the strict organic and food safety standards for their product.
The organic beans or seeds purchased for the product are processed into a crude form of lethicin at a separate facility, then delivered to Clarkson Soy to be made into their private formula.
“We audit every supplier we have, including visiting their operations regularly,” Peyton explains. “The new Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) requires suppliers to verify everything as part of homeland security. Lethicin production in China and India have to comply with FISMA as well, but they typically don’t have the same standards we have, so we have an edge on them,” he says. “FISMA may prove to be the driver of American production. It will create jobs due to the demand for quality and oversight of food products. Food defense is one of the issues we have to consider now.”
Dennis Grayson is the Quality Control Manager for the plant. Along with making sure the plant sells a consistent, standardized product, he ensures that the FISMA standards are upheld for the entire production chain. Grayson assesses any food safety risks not only in their facility, but in the supplier facilities as well.
“We want to make sure you say what you do, do what you say and then prove it to us,” he says.
Much of his job is auditing suppliers and implementing risk prevention controls.
“It’s a proactive process now,” he explains. “We determine beforehand what risks might be on the site and solve them before a problem occurs.”
Clarkson Soy is playing the long game with their organic product line. With the continuing demand for fully organic products in the marketplace, organic lethicin seems like a sure bet for success for this Champaign business.