Manufacturers are avidly seeking ingredients to replace sugars with longer-chain carbohydrates, opening more doors to this functional ingredient. Shane Starling surveys the burgeoning field
There aren't many food ingredients, functional or otherwise, that are having as good a time of it right now as fibre — perhaps fitting given that 25 years ago it was the Japanese government's push for more fibre foods that led to the birth of the modern functional foods industry.
While it is common knowledge that fibre is good for intestinal health — there is nothing innovative in the 'eat your porridge and you'll have no digestive problems' sell — certain events have triggered fresh fibre interest and made it one of the super ingredients of the moment.
In particular, the idea of 'slow carb' has taken hold, and formulation advances have meant more fibre-enriched products are available across more food categories than ever before.
Rising from the ashes of the low-carb fires, slow carb is a fibre-friendly idea, tied in as it is with increasingly popular Glycaemic Index-based diets, a raft of intrinsic health benefits from gut to heart health, and newer benefits revolving around cholesterol lowering and weight loss. A swathe of new, mainly soluble fibre forms are offering benefits to manufacturers of products, from white bread with the nutritional qualities of brown bread, to cookies that are good for you without tasting like they are good for you. (See January 2006 and April 2005 editions of FF&N at www.ffnmag.com for further fibre formulation articles.)
In essence, food makers are desperate for ingredients that can replace sugars with longer-chain carbohydrates, and the increasingly varied and flexible suite of fibre ingredients fits the bill perfectly. More broadly, food companies are looking to make their offerings healthier, and fibre also fulfils that criteria (made all the more attractive by being coupled with government-approved health claims in various parts of the world).
There are oat and barley beta-glucan claims in the US; oat claims in the UK; and whole-grains claims permitted in the UK, Finland and Sweden. In the innovation hotbed that is Japan, many fibre-fortified foods have government-backed FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use) status for their health benefits.
All of this activity has contributed to an international fibre foods, beverages, supplements and ingredients market where innovation has been ratcheted up so that your next fibre ingredient could as easily come from a cactus plant as a locust bean, barley or good ol' oats.
In addition, the whole-grain story gained a massive boost when the US government recommended increased whole-grains consumption at the beginning of 2005. Around the same time, major food makers such as General Mills and Kellogg's announced policy shifts toward the (in some cases exclusive) inclusion of whole grains in their product ranges.
Also last year, the European Commission launched an initiative to explore means of increasing whole-grains consumption among European populations. The European joint venture between General Mills and Nestlé that promotes whole-grain products is but one example of major food companies responding to this changing market.
"People are definitely more interested in getting more fibre into their diets, whether it is traditional sources like cereals or via foods and drinks carrying some of these new ingredients," says Ailbhe Fallon of UK-based Fallon Currie Consulting. "With all the added health benefits that are coming to light we are going beyond where fibre has been before. At the same time if you ask consumers about fibre, the first thing they think about is laxation."
This is all music to the ears of whole-grain and fibre-ingredients vendors supplying a market worth just shy of $200 million in 2004 in the US alone and set to double by 2011, according to analyst Frost & Sullivan.
One player taking advantage of this climate is Alberta, Canada-based Cevena Biotech, which has a newly launched range of barley and oat-derived fibre concentrates under the brand name Viscofiber.
"There is an explosive trend in fibre for several good reasons," says Cevena's marketing director Nina Likins. "The US dietary recommendation; the popularity of low-GI and weight-control programmes; the Food and Drug Administration authorised oat and barley beta-glucan heart-health claims. All this has paved the way for an inundation of new food and dietary products including beverages; nutritional bars and chews; yoghurt and ice cream; soups; pasta; breakfast cereals; and baked goods such as bread, muffins and cookies."
Viscofiber, as its name suggests, markets itself on its viscous qualities and high-concentration, low-cost benefits and is being targeted at beverages, although other platforms are in the ambitious start-up's sights. "Viscofiber's high viscosity means it possesses strong thickening and stabilising properties owing to its mouthfeel, and can be used to replace fat," says Likins, adding, "Taste is key. Too many commercial fibre products have an aftertaste or clump in beverages. Viscofiber is being marketed for improving glycaemic response, improving cholesterol levels, and increasing satiety and weight loss."
She says the company is engaged in educating not just food and beverage makers, but consumers. "Our strategy is to support our branded ingredient at the retail level, educating consumers via marketing and public relations."
The company has a patent application pending for its method of combining xanthan and beta-glucan in beverages and is also active in the supplements arena.
On the holy grail of the white loaf that has the nutritional benefits of brown bread, Likins believes "with the technology coming on stream there's plenty of hope for a better, more nutritional white bread." National Starch Food Innovation's Hi-maize resistant starch has achieved a lot of success in this area as it is whiter than flour but high in fibre and virtually taste and texture neutral. ConAgra's Ultragrain offers similar benefits (after a decade of development work).
French biotech firm Bio Serae has developed an ingredient it calls NeoPuntia, which is derived from dehydrated cactus leaves. Initially targeted at the weight-management supplements industry, the company actively began promoting it as a food ingredient in 2004, after it won a major industry award for innovation in the same year.
For Bio Serae marketing manager Catherine Thimonie, fibre has undergone a complete image makeover in recent years. "Fibres were essentially known for their ability to improve intestinal transit and digestive comfort, but research has highlighted fibres possess many other nutritional properties and so they have come to the forefront of the food industry. Since NeoPuntia entered the food market, we have developed fruit juice with pulp, chocolate, bars, bread, cookies, peanut coating, soup and more. It's a very flexible ingredient."
Coni Francis, PhD, RD, scientific affairs manager at GTC Nutrition, notes the broader picture of which increased fibre demand is a part. "High demand for healthier ingredients and formulations is certain to increase as consumers are seeking healthier food and beverage options. The market may not be focusing as strongly on low carb; however, the modified carbohydrate message will remain strong — products are likely to be positioned differently. The changes will reflect the growing knowledge of glycaemic health and may lead to a 'right carb' or 'slow carb' concept."
The Colorado-based company's prebiotic fibre, NutraFlora, as well as its oat bran concentrate, Natureal, have been used in kefir, yoghurt and other dairy applications, sports products, functional waters, nutrition bars, weight-loss products, soy milk, green foods, probiotic supplements, mineral supplements, medical foods, and pet foods. In addition to nutritional benefits, Francis says NutraFlora "has the ability to enhance the flavour of foods, mask metallic notes associated with high-intensity sweeteners and help minimise off flavours of soy-based products."
Belgium-based Orafti's inulin fibre ingredients can claim similar benefits. And like Orafti, which has long marketed some of its ingredients direct to the consumer under the Beneo banner, GTC offers its customers the opportunity to participate in a co-branding program. "Several of GTC Nutrition's customers, including Horizon Organic Dairy, have partnered with the company to promote health and well-being for consumers of all ages," she says. The ability of prebiotic fibres to increase the absorption of other nutrients such as calcium was also gaining increased attention after several studies reported positive results.
ADM's Fibersol-2 ingredient, a digestive-resistant maltodextrin developed by Japanese fibre specialist Matsutani, is another fibre variant showing new application potential as it has been added to Tropicana Essential's range of orange juice in the US. It can also be used in "other beverages, cereal coatings, yoghurt and fruit preparations," according to Allan Buck, research and development director of the Illinois-headquartered company's Food Ingredients division. "In Japan, the ingredient has FOSHU status for attenuating blood-glucose response, for lowering triglycerides and cholesterol, and for providing intestinal regularity."
New Zealand start-up GraceLinc has developed a barley ingredient, Glucagel, which is approaching its first commercial application. John Morgan, CEO. is a realist who understands how difficult it will be to succeed in a market segment where big players like Cargill already exist with its patented Barliv ingredient (although it is yet to enter the market despite supporting the recently approved barley beta-glucans health claim in the US).
"You've got to have plenty of material that the market is looking for and then hopefully you've got it covered by protectable patents," he notes. "That is how you compete with the bigger players. You've got to look at the market-end NPD because in Europe and the US barley is not an established functional foods ingredient for anyone — not Cargill, Cevena, not anyone. It is a challenge getting food companies, whatever size they might be, to work with new ingredients and then getting those products to market so consumers can understand them and connect with the story of the ingredient and what it might do for them."
He adds: "Technically, barley beta-glucans are food-system friendly, they are pale in colour and bland in flavour. So there is inherent food-platform flexibility built in there."
And what of the original and most common fibre ingredient source — oats?
Rudi van Mol, vice-president of marketing and strategy at the world's largest oat ingredients supplier, Canadian-based SunOpta, highlights the distinction between the digestive-tract (insoluble fibre) ingredients like the ones SunOpta specialises in, and newer soluble ingredients that are drawing attention for other functional and nutritive reasons.
"For instance, fortifying beverages from the fibre perspective makes more sense with insoluble fibre than soluble fibre because soluble fibre absorbs so much water," he observes. "We are doing a lot of research trying to establish blend thresholds and sourcing new soluble fibre forms. Take oat fibre, for example, which we've been making for decades. It's very good for breakage reduction in cookies and baked goods but there is a certain optimal use level. If you are trying to fortify a cookie and make a high-fibre claim as well as improve the quality of the cookie, there is a certain amount of insoluble fibre you want to use for breakability improvement and a certain amount of soluble fibre for a health claim. It's a similar situation to what's going on with all the high-intensity sweeteners where everybody is furiously testing blends to develop solutions for different applications."
Baked goods, processed meats and pet foods are taking up the majority of his company's attention, he says, with dairy, snack foods and children's foods gaining interest, as well as beverages. "The soft-drink industry in particular is desperate to arrest their sliding growth by attaching themselves to any health trend. We're doing some good business there."
The company was also moving into organics. "Organic oats and soy fibre are new products for us. The market is very different because the organic food makers are usually smaller operators so there is a different strategy required. But it is a sector that is only going to grow and we are excited about our prospects there."