Good fibrations

Things are looking great for fibre, with new applications being tested and more consumers clamouring for healthy ingredients. Shane Starling finds out how companies are ratcheting up to meet demand

Fibre as a functional ingredient will never fall out of favour. It has too much going for it. Consumers are increasingly aware of fibre's health benefits, which have expanded in recent years from gut, digestive health and heart health to energy sustenance, weight management, diabetes, and skin and bone health (via improved calcium absorption). People know they don't get enough fibre in their diets, with most eating less than 50 per cent of recommended levels.

In response to this situation, many governments promote fibre consumption, whether in the form of whole grains, fibre foods or otherwise. On the supply side, there are more options than ever before, including fibres that function as fat replacers and sugar substitutes. Long gone are the days when Metamucil was pretty much the only fibre source for added-value food products and supplements. From psyllium to oats, rice bran, cactus, bamboo, hops, fruits and vegetables, chicory, and more, formulation options have opened up as new ingredients have reached market, sometimes after decades of research and development. There are few limits to end-product categories that include kefir, yoghurt and other dairy applications, sports products, functional waters, nutrition bars, weight-loss products, soy milk, supplements, medical foods, baked goods, chocolate and sugar confectionery, drinks, pasta, and more.

For Bryan Rodriguez, technical-applications manager at Lonza Nutrition, which markets a larch arabinogalactan ingredient called FiberAid, the change is significant and positive. "The consumer has learned that taking a prebiotic fibre can do more than just benefit cholesterol and digestive regularity," he says. "It can also improve gastrointestinal health and thus boost overall health."

From a formulations perspective, many fibres are very easily incorporated into foods and drinks, adding and boosting nutrition levels, while simultaneously promoting functional attributes to improve the formulation, he notes. "For example, fibres can be used to mimic fats in foods, offering a similar mouthfeel."

A growing, significant market
Researcher Frost & Sullivan notes that fibre is an ingredient market worth $200 million in the US alone in 2004, predicting it will double to $400 million by 2011, a conservative figure compared to some other market estimates. Euromonitor International puts the global market for foods marketing high-fibre claims including packaged foods, baked goods, bread, biscuits and cereals at about $80 billion globally, rising to $95 billion by 2011.

Tate & Lyle, which this year launched a branded resistant-starch ingredient suite containing both soluble and insoluble fibres called Promitor, cites its own market research. It found consumers across the globe quickly getting up to speed on prebiotics. "Our research found consumers are quite aware of fibre, what it does and how it works as a prebiotic," says Sandra Einerhand, Ph.D., European director of health and nutritional sciences.

Prebiotic fibres have received a tremendous boost in the past year or two — particularly in North America, where a nascent market has achieved retail sales of about $400 million in two years — from the boom in probiotics that has occurred as consumers warm to messages about enhanced digestive health. In Europe the market is much more established.

North American companies such as Dannon (Danone), Stonyfield Farm (also owned by French giant Danone), and Yoplait have invested large sums in marketing campaigns to educate the American and Canadian public about probiotics and prebiotics. Dietary fibres such as inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, poly- and oligosaccharides, cellulose, guar gum, and others benefit gut flora, acting as feed for probiotics.

Co-operative growth
Some see prebiotics and probiotics competing for the same space, but Einerhand sees it differently. "The two ingredients can work together, and we are encouraging that. The growth in probiotics provides market opportunities for us."

At any rate, as noted above, the digestive-health field is only one in which dietary fibres play. California-based supplier BI Nutraceuticals, which specialises in psyllium — a relative veteran of the fibre-ingredients market — does not even bother with a prebiotic sell for its psyllium ingredient, which has traditionally been marketed to supplements manufacturers on its ability to boost heart health. Now BI is looking to expand into functional foods and drinks.

"We looked at the functional-foods category about 10 years ago and no one was interested at that time, but since Danone launched its products, food manufacturers have jumped on board. It has happened very quickly," says Matt Phillips, vice president of marketing and sales. "The bar companies are coming to us and saying we know you have benefits with your products — how can you help us?"

Pre-Danone and the probiotics explosion, a Proctor & Gamble heart-health claim a few years ago set off 'the revolution' for psyllium and other dietary fibres. "Anything that has fibre content is now being marketed as a functional ingredient. Apple fibre is big. You could use any fruit or vegetable with a high-fibre content. Rice and a host of new grains are coming on board," Phillips says.

Indeed many fibre products are reaching market as the by-products of other sources, such as Arizona-based NutraCea's rice-bran ingredient, RiSolubles. NutraCea has made good use out of rice bran by signing deals with rice millers, who usually discard it. Like a lot of the newer fibre forms, it is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, protein and other nutrients.

Others such as Alberta-based Cevena (recently purchased by the Spanish supplier, Natraceutical Group) have concentrated on the supplements market with its beta-glucan-derived ViscoFiber ingredient, promoted primarily for its weight-loss potential. But they are also scrutinising the foods market more closely.

The 'old school' dietary-fibre players, such as BI, Belgium-based Beneo-Orafti (inulin and oligofructose), Colorado-based GTC Nutrition (fructooligosaccharides), and Manitoba-based Pizzey's Milling (flax), trade on volume over margin in what have to a large extent become commodity items. Being established offers obvious benefits, as evidenced by Glanbia's recent acquisition of Pizzey's Milling, even if it was Pizzey's move into fish oils that hooked Glanbia.

Glanbia possesses its own suite of fibres, including inulin, acacia gum, pectin, and gums from guar and xanthan. New-product development manager, Marcus Smith, says Glanbia is keeping an eye on salba and cactus as well as pea, but "mainly as a cheap substitute for milk proteins."

Beneo-Orafti, the world's largest inulin and oligofructose supplier, notes about 21,000 food and supplement products were launched in 2006 in Western Europe, Asia and North America containing its chicory-sourced inulin and oligofructose ingredients. These ingredients have solid scientific backing, which does not stop Beneo-Orafti from constantly commissioning more (more than 300 so far including 100 clinicals) and being active in submitting five health claims to the European Commission for consideration under new health-claims legislation there.

These are:

  • Prebiotic / bifidogenic
  • Improves digestive/bowel function
  • Increased calcium absorption
  • Increased bone mineral density
  • Increased inner protection/resistance

The boost prebiotics have received from probiotics is not lost on Beneo-Orafti marketing and communication manager, Tim Van Der Schrealen, however. "Public awareness has risen dramatically thanks to the maturity of probiotics," he tells Functional Ingredients. "Probiotics have paved the way in helping to educate the consumer, and ensure they understand how important gut health is for people in all life stages.

BI's Phillips says psyllium sells for about $7 per kilo, a veritable bargain compared to the prices being charged by some of the insoluble fibre suppliers. For instance, new kid on the block, salba, a grain grown in Peru, sells at $25 per kilo or more, although it should be noted many of the insoluble fibres are used in much smaller volumes in product formulations, so cost per serving is reduced significantly.

Mitch Propster, chief executive officer of salba supplier, Core Naturals, says salba is expensive per kg, but efficacious dosage requirements are low and the ingredient packs a nutritional punch that includes omega-3 and antioxidant benefits. Other grains, such as flax, market themselves in a similar way.

Need for education
"Many consumers don't yet know that fibre comes in all kinds of different forms and provides different benefits," Propster says. "Due to this I believe the industries responsible for promoting fibre are becoming increasingly proactive in the pursuit of education. Omega-3s started out this way as well, and now there is abundant information. I believe we are simply experiencing a re-classification of how different fibres are marketed to approach different consumer needs. After all, fibre is a carbohydrate."

Florida-based Core Naturals is targeting salba at baked goods, snacks, health bars and beverages. Several products have come on board in Canada, with interest shown from the US, China and Japan, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

The distinction between soluble and insoluble fibres is also being demarcated. "Insoluble and soluble fibres perform at different levels," says Catherine Thimonier, marketing manager at French-based Bio Serae, which markets a cactus-derived ingredient called NeoPuntia with clinical backing in the area of cholesterol reduction. "Insoluble fibres are important for transit, while soluble fibres are more efficient in satiety, low GI and appetite control, and for cholesterol regulation. But they are both essential for good health."

Flax has a combination of both. Linda Pizzey, president of Manitoba-based Pizzey's Milling, supplies flax and fish oils, and notes the soluble/insoluble combination inherent in its flax ingredients.

"Flaxseed contains both soluble and insoluble fibre (nine per cent and 19 per cent, respectively). The health benefits realised by using flaxseed are primarily based around its contribution of insoluble fibre, which includes a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and promotion of satiety, and which may have an impact on problems associated with the growing rate of obesity," Pizzey says.

"When manufacturers capitalise on a growing phenomenon, whether it be fibre or omega-3s, there is potential for confusing and even misleading information being presented in the marketplace. The responsibility lies with manufacturers to educate consumers about their product without confusing or misleading them."

French starch specialist, Roquette, is promoting its corn-derived fibre ingredient, Nutriose, as both a fibre-boosting ingredient and a sugar replacer, for which it claims up to 50 per cent can be substituted without a taste tariff.

"A soluble fibre like Nutriose?is beneficial for contributing to gut health and general well-being,?satiety, calorie management and extending energy release," says marketing manager, Emily Lauwaert.?"As well as its fibre statute, it is also widely used for sugar reduction in goods." Roquette is also investigating the pea as a fibre and protein source.

Ingredients like these are heavily processed, yet fibre retains a healthy halo. The demise of low carb and rise of 'slow carb' has helped, too, as fibre is a long-chain carbohydrate form that is characterised by slow digestion and hence slow energy release.

"The market may not be focusing on low carb," says Coni Francis, PhD, RD, senior manager of science, marketing and technical services at Colorado-based GTC Nutrition. "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."

New marketing language
Yet fibre does not possess the novelty of, say, omega-3s, sterols or polyphenols, despite some of the new breed being abundant in omega-3s and antioxidants, and Tom Vierhile, executive director of New York-based market researcher, Datamonitor Productscan Online, suggests caution.

"Fibre has been around for quite a while and lacks the newness?and marketing appeal of some other functional ingredients," he warns. "Plus high-fibre foods tend to be linked with older consumers, and that demographic has always been undermarketed to by the larger packaged-food and beverage makers. For high fibre to take off,?I think it has to be marketed?as a weight-loss solution or as a satiety-enhancing ingredient. This would provide a lot more marketing latitude?to high-fibre products."

And, indeed, this is happening with increasing regularity. With weight management and satiety predicted by most food-industry pundits to be key trends for many years to come, fibre's prowess in this area is going to be called upon more and more. Ingredients companies are responding to this, conducting scientific studies in the area and tailoring their marketing to highlight fibre's weight-management potential.

Along with protein fractions, and often in conjunction with them, fibre is seen as a vital ingredient in the growing band of satiety and weight-management foods, beverages and supplements. Products like Danone Lasting Satisfaction, a spoonable yoghurt launched in the US, the UK and Spain, are notching impressive sales, and are being marketed on a satiety platform. Its label reads: "Each serving provides over 2g fibres and about 7.9g proteins, which are both known to increase satisfaction." In this case the fibre comes in the form of guar gum.

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