A potential FDA ban on trans-fats in foods might seem like it has nothing to do with our enjoyment of flickering candles. However, this ban could translate to a sharp increase in the cost of soy wax. The “partial hydrogenation” process, which produces trans-fat-containing food products, also produces soy candle waxes.
While the danger of trans-fats in the diet has led the FDA to consider rescinding their GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status, this only applies to trans-fats in foods. There is no evidence that trans-fats pose any hazard when used as fuel for candles, and Russell clarifies that trans-fats are not released into the air when soy wax is burned.
The problem we face is that there are only a few manufacturers of trans-fats in America, and 90% of production is for foods. If the FDA rescinds their GRAS status, some manufacturers might ban all trans-fats from their plants to prevent cross-contamination into foods. Even if some manufacturers continue to produce soy waxes, the greatly-reduced volume will increase production costs significantly.
Candle manufacturers turned to soy waxes when the price of paraffin waxes increased, thanks to a change in motor oil production. Paraffin was a by-product of the original production method; but a newer method produces more motor oil while eliminating paraffin by-products. Soy wax offered additional advantages to paraffin beyond its lower price: Its finer crystalline structure holds greater quantities of fragrance; plus its molecular properties bind fragrances evenly throughout the wax so that a candle maintains a consistent scent throughout its burn-life.
Soy wax prices have already been impacted by government incentives which drive the use of soybean oil toward making bio-diesels – and away from making soy waxes. Russell warns that, even if the current push to rescind the GRAS status of trans-fats falls through at this time, the issue will continue to be revisited until the ban finally goes through. And there is more bad news for candle makers and lovers. Another 200 million pounds of paraffin will be taken off the market by 2015 as Exxon changes their motor oil production methods. Another alternative wax ingredient has been coconut oil; but 90% of our supply comes from the Philippines, which suffered enormous losses in their coconut plantations from Typhoon Haiyan. Replacement trees will take years to mature, and coconut oil exporters will only supply current customers until production recovers.
There are alternate wax sources in current development. Some brands of butter/oil blends are produced with a re-engineered soy processthat does not produce trans-fats. Similar processes such as “trans-esterification” could be used to produce soy waxes. There are also synthetic waxes under development. Some major soy oil producers are taking a pro-active approach to implementing these new technologies, or are considering converting an existing soy oil food plant to strictly non-food applications. It will, however, take manufacturers time and money to convert to new processes and bring production up to a volume which will take wax prices back down.
Most candle consumers are probably completely unaware of these issues. However, candle manufacturers need to work closely with marketers of soy and other waxes to keep abreast of any new developments that these companies may bring to the market.
About the author
Steve Russell, a graduate of the University of Tulsa with a degree in Chemistry, has several patents in his name, and more pending. One of the original pioneers in developing soy waxes, he received the Researchers Achievers Circle Award from Cargill in 2005; and currently sits on the Technical Program Committee of the National Candle Association. Russell joined Renegade Strategic Services as their wax and ink expert in 2011, and takes great satisfaction in helping candle manufacturers find the perfect formulas to make their beautiful products. He can be reached for questions about candle wax supply and cost issues at firstname.lastname@example.org.