History of Gunther Products: Work with Soyfoods

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi

Gunther Products, founded in 1949 by J. Kenneth Gunther, was one of America's early pioneers in enzyme-modified isolated soy proteins, used as whipping agents.

Early Years, to 1949. Ken Gunther received a degree in Biological Chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1936, then went to work as a researcher at Swift & Co. in Chicago. In September 1944 he was offered a job as director of (all??/protein??) research at Central Soya, where he began his first research work with soy proteins.

Before Gunther arrived, Central Soya had done some work on developing a whipping agent from soy proteins. The company hired an egg albumen expert from Armour & Co. named Ray Turner to sell the product but it didn't sell well because of its poor quality. Though not trained as a researcher, Turner was nevertheless technically inclined and very curious. He did some experimental work to improve the product and made several key discoveries, including the first successful use of enzyme hydrolysis of proteins (including?? soy proteins) with pepsin to make a whipping agent. In about 1945 he applied for patents on his inventions. What number?? When granted?? about 1947-48?? Turner's original, landmark patented invention was improved upon in the early 1950s by Sair and Gunther, who separated and removed much of the insoluble protein from solubles and added a little sodium chloride, giving a more concentrated whipping agent with greater whipping strength. The resulting product was called "soy albumen."

In the late 1940s Central Soya's owner, D.W. McMillen, forecast a huge depression. In early 1949 he fired most of his research staff, including Gunther. Mr. Sair went on to becme director of research at Griffith Labs and did pioneering work in soy protein concentrates.

In the summer of 1949 Gunther founded Gunther Products in his home town of Galesburg, Illinois, where his family still lived and had property. He purchased a license from Central Soya to manufacture enzyme-modified isolated under their patent. He payed license fees of 4% on sales for the next 14 years.

At this time there were basically two types of whippable soy proteins being produced in America. The whip toppings such as Delsoy and Rich's Whip Topping had a high fat and moisture content (about 55% water, 10% sugar, 35% fat), which simulated whipping cream and used a small amount of neutralized soy isolate in the form sodium proteinate; it was not enzyme modified. Gunther's products, by contrast, contained no fat and were enzyme modified. Lever Brothers' was interested in Gunther's products for 2-3 years. When?? For what??

The 1950s. What happened?? The outbreak of the Korean War in mid-1950 revived the US economy, so that McMillen's prediction was aborted. Gunther bought food-grade soybean flakes (about 50% protein, also used in making soy flour) from Staley and ADM. Who were his early US competitors? Lenderlink imported a whipping protein from the Netherlands that was a competitor. Subsequent improvements on the product, which gave a better stability, were made and patents were granted. E-400??

The main uses of Gunther's whipping proteins (roughly 75%) were in confectionery products, especially nougat-like or marshmallow-like aerated candies. Mars Candy was one big customer. Most of the rest was used in icings and an ingredient in a sponge cake mix (which sold very well in Australia).

The 1960s. In the late 1960s Mr. Gunther decided to sell his company. Now in his early 60s, he needed $750,000 to expand his plants, and felt that selling the company would be easier than trying to raise that much capital. He soon found two interested potential buyers. The A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company in Decatur, Illinois, and Lenderlink, a Dutch maker of soy protein products. Lenderlink did a lot of business in Europe but, as Gunthers recalls, "made a horrible product using alkaline modification." They were interested in buying Gunther Products to get a foothold in the USA. Staley, which had done almost no research on soy protein foods in their huge laboratories (except for a little work on soy flour during World War II), was very interested in getting into this type of soy protein business.

In 1969 Ken Gunther decided to sell his business to Staley. He stayed on to run the business (which continued to be very successful), retiring in 1973??

No history of Gunther Products has ever been published. But some articles must have been written in the early days that gives at least glimpses of the history?