100 Years

A short history of Commercial Lecithin and how we became Lucas Meyer - The Lecithin People

Before World War I, my grandfather, Lucas H. H. Meyer, was captain on a sailship, the Herzogin Sophie Charlotte, a four-mast bark without engine. In 1914 he went round Cape Hoorn with her, becoming one of the last Cap Horniers. When all German ships were confiscated after the war, he started working as a merchant trainee in the company of this father-in-law. Five year later, in June 1923, he started his own trading company, Lucas Meyer in Hamburg.

Around the same time a young engineer called Hermann Bollmann experimented with the removal of “wet gums” from soy oil at a Hamburg oil mill in order to improve the taste of soya oil and margarine. The “Bollmann process” (adding water to soy oil and removing the resulting sludge by centrifugation) was later patented and worldwide became the key technology for improving the quality of soy oil. By batch drying of the sludge from this process, lecithin became available in the second half of the “Golden Twenties”. Pioneer in the introduction of commercial lecithin to the food industry was the American Ross & Rowe Company, which later became part of Central Soya Inc.

My grandfather and Mr. Bollmann never met and it took more than 20 years for lecithin to turn into an issue for the Lucas Meyer company. In 1946 lecithin was used as an ingredients in our pharmaceutical products. The formulations were developed and sold by “Dr. Meyer-Castens & Co.”, a company owned by my grandfather and my father, Lucas H. G. Meyer.

In 1950 their annual requirement of this material was 2000 kg or 10 drums. At that time import permits and foreign currency allowances were difficult to come by and usually only partly allocated – therefor the company applied for an import license of 20 tons of lecithin from a US supplier.

It came as a rather unpleasant surprise, when - due to a glut of lecithin on the US market - the import permit for the full 20 tons was granted. All of a sudden it was necessary to find ways to “dispose” of excess material which would otherwise have lasted for a 10 year production.

In Europe, lecithin at that time was known as a pitch-black syrup from Manchuria, suitable only for making dark chocolate. The carefully dried US material was much lighter in colour and customers in Germany refused this as “inferior quality”. The solution: My mother (Ellen Elisabeth Meyer)was “boiling” drum after drum of high-quality US lecithins on a surplus “Wehrmacht” stove in order to match our customers’ colour expectations. This was the first taylor-made lecithin in Europe.

So a purchasing mistake lead to a new business line and since 1950 lecithin was one of our regular trading products.

In the second half of the 60’s my father decided to sell all his other business activities (shipping, textile wholesale and a farm in Brazil) and to focus exclusively on the lecithin business, operated under “Lucas Meyer GmbH & Co”. Raw materials were initially sourced in the US and China, later also bought from oil mills in Europe and South America.

When I joined the family business in 1976, our company had about 75 % of sales in Germany and 25 % export business. Specialities - such as deoiled grades and phospholipids – had just been developed and contributed only marginally to sales.

The slogan "Lucas Meyer - The Lecithin People" had been invented by managing director and head of marketing Volkmar Wywiol and was registered as a trademark. From 1977 to 1999 we were able to develop the brand on a worldwide basis and set up manufacturing sites in other European markets, the US, South America and Asia. By offering application service and innovative solutions for the food industry, we became the No. 1 supplier of speciality lecithins and phospholipids.

Sales grew to around USD 125 million, 80 % of which were outside of Germany and Leci-PS™, a phospholipid fraction improving cognitive functions of the brain, became a bestselling food supplement in the US market.

In July of 1999 our family sold the business of “Lucas Meyer-The Lecithin people” to SKW Trostberg AG, which later was merged into Degussa AG. Based on our former lecithin company, the new Degussa Food Ingredient Division became a global player in this market segment. However, only 7 years later the Degussa management and shareholders decided to split the company into three divisions (Fine Chemicals, Construction Materials and Food Ingredients). Fine Chemicals was renamed Evonik AG and the other two division were divested of. Cargill, the largest agribusiness in the world, bought the Food Ingredients Division, operating today under the name Cargill Texturizing Solutions (Deutschland) GmbH & Co. KG, still located at our former site in Hamburg.

As grandson of the founder, I still own the original company, now called Lucas Meyer Service GmbH, providing consultancy services to the lecithin industry.

In June 2023 we celebrate the company’s 100 years anniversary.