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Chapter 6. Markets and end-uses of benzoin: competition from other supplying countries

The following discussion provides as much information as could be gleaned from field interviews and from published literature. In most cases it was impossible to quantify accurately the amounts of benzoin used in the different segments of the market or in the particular end-uses. Some companies were willing to disclose the approximate quantities of benzoin they use or trade, but since they represent only a few of many such companies it would be misleading to attempt to use them to extrapolate on the volume of usage. Some typical usage levels of benzoin as a food additive are found in the literature but without knowing the total consumption of the particular products in question it would, again, be misleading to try and use them to calculate overall benzoin consumption. Even if one did, it would still leave the question as to how much was Siam benzoin and how much was Sumatra benzoin.

One has to resort to trade statistics - for all their deficiencies - to get some quantitative idea of markets and this is done in Chapter 7.

In the source countries, consumption is vastly different in Lao PDR and Indonesia. Use of Siam benzoin in Lao PDR is minimal. A small amount is used for incense purposes in Buddhist temples. In Indonesia, it is not possible to quantify domestic consumption of Sumatra benzoin, but if available production data are to be believed it could be considerable.

6.1 Pharmaceuticals

6.1.1 Pharmacopoeia preparations

Benzoin has well-established uses in both allopathic and traditional forms of medicine. Several national pharmacopoeias - including the British, Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Swiss, Thai and US - describe specifications and tests for benzoin and these are examined in more detail in Chapter 8. Some specify either Siam or Sumatra types while some include both. The titles of the monographs in the French/Swiss and Italian Pharmacopoeias are Benjoin du Laos and Benzoino del Laos, respectively.

In the form of a tincture (i.e. a solution in alcohol) benzoin is used as an inhalant with steam for the relief of cough, laryngitis, bronchitis and upper respiratory tract disorders. The British Pharmacopoeia (1993a) specifies the use of Sumatra benzoin in Benzoin Inhalation and Compound Benzoin Tincture (the latter known as Friars’ Balsam in the UK). Preparations of the two are shown in Table 6.1.

Table 6.1 Benzoin inhalation and compound benzoin tincture

Benzoin Inhalation

Compound benzoin tincture

Sumatra benzoin

100 g

Sumatra benzoin

100 g


50 g


100 g


20 g

Ethanol (96%)

to 1000 ml

Ethanol (90%)

to 1000 ml

The US Pharmacopoeia (1994) also describes a Compound Benzoin Tincture, although it does not specify which type of benzoin is to be used. In addition to the ingredients stipulated in the British version, another natural resin, tolu balsam (derived from trees of the genus Myroxylon in Central and South America), is included. The Swiss Pharmacopoeia (1995) describes a simple benzoin tincture using Siam benzoin (benjoin du Laos).

Other official and proprietary preparations contain benzoin. These include lotions for the prevention and treatment of cold sores, and a Compound Podophyllum Paint (British Pharmacopoeia, 1993a) which consists of podophyllum resin (derived from the roots of the May apple herb, Podophyllum peltatum) and Compound Benzoin Tincture; this is used for the treatment of warts. In most of these, Sumatra benzoin is used. The Italian Pharmacopoeia describes Ondroly-A as a mouthwash for dental disorders; it includes benzoin tincture and menthol in its ingredients.

6.1.2 Other medicinal preparations

In Indonesia, benzoin extract (from Sumatra benzoin) is used in Purol®, a well-known antibacterial powder used to freshen and soothe dry skin and ameliorate skin allergies.

In the form of over-the-counter herbal medicines, which are finding increasing use in Western society, benzoin (probably the Sumatra type) is employed in cough and cold remedies and for the topical treatment of itching skin rashes, wounds and ulcers. An ointment containing witch hazel and benzoin is used for treating hemorrhoids. In aromatherapy, benzoin is regarded as soothing and relaxing for tired muscles and can be used either in the form of a massage oil or as an additive to bath water. The Body Shop chain of shops sells a skin lotion containing lavender oil, sandalwood, vetivert, patchouli and benzoin.

Benzoin is believed to be widely used in Chinese medicines. The Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1992) states that benzoin preparations in the form of pills or powders are used to restore consciousness, activate the flow of blood and relieve pain. Typical indications for their use are loss of consciousness due to strokes, infantile convulsions and chest pains. The benzoin specified is that from Styrax tonkinensis.

In Bangkok, several pharmacies where benzoin is used in traditional Thai and Chinese medicines were visited during the regional fieldwork. Examples of two prescriptions are given in Appendix 4.

Sumatra benzoin is used a little in traditional jamu medicines in Indonesia (said to be asthma products) but no other information is available.

6.2 Fragrances

6.2.1 Incense use

In volume terms, the greatest use of benzoin - the Sumatra type - is for incense purposes. Most commonly, small or crushed pieces of the raw benzoin in block form are simply placed on an open fire, either in the house or in the place of worship. It is used by several of the major religions, including Moslems and Hindus, and in Chinese temples, and accounts for the fact that the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Indian sub-continent are important export destinations for Sumatra benzoin. It is also used in the Catholic and Orthodox churches and is often formulated with other natural fragrance materials such as frankincense, myrrh and storax (derived from S. officinale, the sole Mediterranean species of the genus).

The use of benzoin for incense purposes by the large Muslim population in Indonesia is impossible to estimate but could be great. It is said to be especially used in Central Java for ceremonies requiring incense.

One other popular retail outlet for benzoin in Indonesia which involves burning it in the home employs modern packaging and marketing. Ratus Dedes®, a small sphere about the size of a golf ball, consists of a mixture of crushed fragrant herbs and tree barks, as well as benzoin. The user sprinkles pieces of it on an open fire to create a fragrance, either to fill the whole room or over which a woman hangs her hair (marketing is aimed at young women).

Extracts of Sumatra benzoin are used to produce fragrances for joss sticks. Sometimes the fragrance formulation is traded internationally and sometimes the joss sticks themselves are exported. India uses fragrances containing benzoin and other natural oils and resins in the manufacture of agar batti. Although most imports of benzoin into Malaysia are of block benzoin for direct use as a source of incense, one fragrance compounder purchases benzoin extract for the production of joss stick perfumes. A little benzoin extract goes a long way, however, and in the case of Malaysia, less than 100 kg of extract are purchased per year.

6.2.2 Formulated fragrances (other than for incense)

The better grades of benzoin are extracted and used in the manufacture of fragrances which are then compounded and employed in a wide range of end-products. These include personal health care products such as toilet soap, shampoo, body lotion and cream, bath oil, aerosol and talcum powder, and household and other products such as liquid soap, air freshener, fabric softener, washing detergent and other cleaning agents.

Although there is occasional overlap in end-use, such as shampoos, the more expensive Siam benzoin is generally used for fragrances at the higher end of the market, i.e. fine fragrances (perfumes and colognes) and the more expensive soaps. Siam benzoin has a pleasant, rounder, softer fragrance than that of Sumatra benzoin, which is somewhat bitter and harsher on the nose. Extracts of Sumatra benzoin also tend to be darker than those of Siam benzoin and for those products where this is not acceptable (and where the higher price of Siam can be tolerated), Siam benzoin is used in preference. However, Sumatra benzoin should not be regarded simply as a less expensive substitute for Siam benzoin - it may be selected on its own merits for use in perfumes. The Siam type is used to impart a sweet, oriental note to the fragrance, while the Sumatra type is used more in spicy and floral-balsamic fragrances. A few perfumers believe some Sumatra benzoin is adulterated with vanilla to pass it off as the Siam type.

Although benzoin contributes its own fragrance to the final, formulated product, one of its important functions is to serve as a fixative for the other fragrance materials, i.e. it increases the tenacity and prevents loss of the middle and top notes of the more volatile components.

6.3 Flavours

6.3.1 Food

Benzoin’s principal role in foods is as a flavouring agent. The presence of substantial amounts of cinnamates in Sumatra benzoin accounts for its use in the manufacture of chocolate flavours, since cinnamates are also present in cocoa and their compatibility facilitates production of the flavour and improves its properties. The flavours are used in chocolate bars, ice cream, milk products, syrups and other products. The level of incorporation in the flavour is around 0.1%, while the flavour may represent up to 4% of the final product.

Benzoin is used as a flavouring in baked goods, especially those containing vanilla or cassia, where it also serves to fix the other flavours and increase their spiciness. It is especially popular in Denmark and Sweden for this purpose. It is also employed as a glazing agent and tinctures of benzoin are used to confer a luster to chocolate eggs. In syrups it is used to produce turbidity.

In Japan, where it is approved for use, benzoin is employed as a chewing gum base. Some use levels for Benzoin resin in foods have been reported and these are shown in Table 6.2.

Table 6.2 Use levels for benzoin resin in foods

Baked goods

139.50 ppm

Frozen dairy

75.56 ppm

Soft candy

93.23 ppm

Confection, frosting

1.00 ppm

Gelatin, pudding

93.28 ppm

Non-alcoholic beverages

51.58 ppm

Alcoholic beverages

49.87 ppm

Chewing gum

54.62 ppm

Source: Burdock, 1995

Burdock (1995) also states that Siam benzoin is used in preference to Sumatra benzoin for food flavouring (but must first be de-acidified). It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the views expressed by others that Sumatra benzoin has greater use because of the price-sensitive nature of the flavour industry.

In the United States, benzoin is approved for food use. A tentative specification exists for benzoin as a food additive (FAO, 1992); the main parts of it are identical with the 1994 US Pharmacopoeia monograph on benzoin (see Appendix 3). Like all food additives, benzoin is subject to periodic scrutiny by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives to assess its safety. The most recent statement of the JECFA (FAO, 1996b) reaffirms the position given at their 21st session, 1977 (WHO, 1978), namely, that no toxicological data were available and therefore no ADI (acceptable daily intake; an indicator of food safety) was allocated. Although there has never been any suggestion that benzoin poses a health hazard when used in foods, the absence of toxicological data means that it is not included in the permitted list of Codex Alimentarius. If favourable data were forthcoming, and benzoin was included in the Codex, this might open up new markets for benzoin. Conversely, if data indicating harmful effects were submitted, this would have an adverse effect on benzoin. In the absence of any information indicating that this is so, however, this remains speculation.

6.3.2 Tobacco

In Indonesia, an important outlet for Sumatra benzoin is in flavouring tobacco. It is still used by some people in Central Java in its raw form - by mixing with tobacco when making their own cigarettes - but it finds wider use in the production of Manila flavour. This is used by cigarette companies in the manufacture of Kretek cigarettes (which also contain the well-known clove flavour). Use of benzoin in this way is unique to Indonesia since another ingredient of the Manila flavour is coumarin, a substance banned in most other countries. Total consumption of the flavour has been estimated by one industry source at about 250 tonnes, of which 5% is benzoin, i.e. about 12 tonnes. Another tobacco flavour uses benzoin in mixture with tolu and Peru balsams.

Benzoin is also used by the tobacco industry in China and possibly, also, in Viet Nam.

6.4 Other uses

Minor applications of benzoin include its use as a glazing agent in polishes and wood finishes. One company in the UK produces a formulation from an alcohol extract of block benzoin and seed lac. This is sold in 1 litre or 5 litre plastic bottles to the furniture trade. It is used particularly for traditional furniture. Sales of the product have increased in recent years, reflecting the fashion for this type of furniture, but purchases of benzoin are still very small - just a few tonnes per year by this company - compared with consumption in the major end-use industries.

One brief reference in a report of the Ministry of Forestry (MoF), Indonesia, states that benzoin is used by the porcelain industry.

6.5 Competition from other supplying countries

6.5.1 Indonesia Scale of production

The problem of quantifying actual Indonesian production of benzoin (as distinct from Sumatra benzoin of commerce, most of which contains damar) was alluded to in Chapter 1, section 1.1. Two widely varying estimates of production illustrate the divergence of views.

An official report (Anon., 1993) gives annual production of benzoin for the years 1990-93 as shown in Table 6.3.

Table 6.3 Gum benzoin production in Indonesiaa, 1990-1993 (tonnes)










a: North Tapanuli, North Sumatra
b: At July 1993

Source: MoF, 1993

It is not clear how these estimates were arrived at, and unless there is a far higher consumption of benzoin in Indonesia than is thought to be the case, it is difficult to believe that the figures can be so high.

Jafarsidik (1986), in contrast, states that total production of benzoin in 1986 was about 470 tonnes, of which 420 tonnes was from Tapanuli, an order of magnitude lower than the Ministry of Forestry estimate. The source of the data for this second estimate is not stated.

Using the figure of approximately 1,000 tonnes given in Chapter 7, section 7.3.2 for average annual exports from Indonesia, subtracting something for the presence of damar in that figure, and then allowing for domestic consumption, it is possible that real production of benzoin could be of the order of 500-1,000 tonnes, a figure close to Jafarsidik’s, at the lower end of the range.

Based on a detailed forest inventory (Anon., 1993b), the area of benzoin trees has been estimated at about 17,500 ha. If a benzoin yield of just over 300 g per tree is assumed, then three trees would yield 1 kg of benzoin, i.e. three million trees would be required to produce 1,000 tonnes of benzoin. If a density of 300 stems per hectare is then assumed, 1,000 tonnes of benzoin would require an area of 10,000 ha of trees (and 4,000 tonnes would require 40,000 ha). Location of production

Collection of benzoin in Indonesia occurs in the Tapanuli region of North Sumatra, mainly in the highlands above 1,000 m to the west and south of Lake Toba. Some production is from wild trees but many families plant styrax to provide a source of cash income. Seedlings from mixed stands are transplanted to sites where little or no seedlings occur to provide villagers with a high density and wide range of sizes of benzoin trees.

A network of internal trading exists. Agents purchase different types of benzoin from centers in or near the forest areas such as Tarutung. The almonds type is usually bought in mixed size form and is then sold to larger traders, exporters or processors in Medan or Pematang Siantar, who clean and sort it. Producers of block benzoin in Pematang Siantar either export it themselves or sell to other traders in Medan who export it. Method of production

The trees are tapped during the flowering season, typically between June and September. Prior to tapping, the bark is scraped to remove moss and lichens. Vertical cuts 2-3 cm in length are made, about 30 cm apart, so as to penetrate the wood. On smaller trees, a single line of cuts is made but this increases to two or three on larger trees. Tapping extends to as high as 5 m on the large trees using a similar system of climbing them as that used in Lao PDR. The first tapping is made on trees 7-10 years old and continues annually for some years after. Replanting is recommended when the trees reach 25 years of age.

Harvesting of the benzoin takes place 3-4 months after tapping. Average yields of benzoin are said to be about 0.1-0.5 kg per tree; a good tree produces about 1 kg (Anon., 1993b). A vigorous, medium-size tree produces 0.5 kg kasar (white coloured) and 0.5 kg juru (dark coloured) (Watanabe et al., 1996).

The methods used in Indonesia for preparing block benzoin have been described elsewhere (Anon., 1993b) and are the same as those used in Singapore. Grades and qualities

In Sumatra, more resin appears to run down the tree, rather than being trapped between the cut bark and the stem, than is the case in Lao PDR, and this results in a large number of different types and qualities of benzoin. Darker, dirtier grades are produced, which do not have Lao equivalents. Sorting yields the following types (Anon., 1993b):

The grading terms for benzoin almonds of commerce are comparable with the Lao ones, i.e., they are graded according to size: Grade 1 for the larger pieces and Grade 4 for dust/siftings. It is presumed that they are derived from the mata besar and mata halus types.

Styrax paralleloneurum is said to produce the best quality benzoin but in lower yields than S. benzoin. Watanabe et al. (1996) state that benzoin quality also depends on how it exudes from the tree: kasar has a white colour and is sold at a higher price than the coloured juru. Benzoin which has congealed on the bark is called tahil.

6.5.2 Viet Nam

Historically, Siam benzoin produced in Viet Nam was being exported to Europe along with that from Lao PDR at the beginning of the 20th century. Production was mainly in the northern provinces and continued into the 1950s; thereafter it has declined, apparently because the price is not sufficiently attractive to induce the people to tap the trees. Scale of production

Exports from Viet Nam of what appears to be benzoin are discussed in Chapter 7. The volumes are small (1-12 tonnes annually) and do not necessarily represent indigenous production. Some benzoin enters Viet Nam from Houa Phan Province, Lao PDR, and is re-exported. Before 1990, when the state import-export company NAFORIMEX had a monopoly on benzoin trade, they claimed to export up to 40-50 tonnes per year, mainly to France. Since then, other companies have been allowed to export benzoin, which has reduced NAFORIMEX’s share. They exported none in 1996 because the price of benzoin from Lao PDR was too high. In addition, a ban on exploiting the protected forest areas where S. tonkinensis grows has contributed to the decrease in domestic production. Location of production

The natural distribution of S. tonkinensis extends from the northern parts of Lao PDR into neighbouring Viet Nam to the northwest of Hanoi. The only area where benzoin collection is still practised is just west of Viet Tri in Vinh Phu province. There is large-scale planting of S. tonkinensis for pulp - over 20,000 ha have been established - but no attempt seems to be made to fit benzoin tapping into the rotation. Presumably, the trees are considered too young for tapping for a year or two prior to felling (or yields are too low). Grades

NAFORIMEX buys mixed benzoin from Lao PDR and then cleans and separates it into seven grades based on size and colour. Grade 1 consists of pale coloured pieces larger than 4 cm. The lower grades are increasingly smaller and darker, until the bottom grade is dust and siftings. Any larger pieces which have suffered from heat and compacted together are also assigned a low grade.

6.5.3 People’s Republic of China

It is reported that benzoin is produced in Yunnan Province but no details are known. Plant sources were indicated in Chapter 2, section 2.4. Sophisticated flavour and fragrance industries are developing in China and if benzoin is being produced it seems likely that it is all consumed domestically to meet the needs of an increasingly consumer-oriented and fashion-conscious market.

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