Inulin, a soluble fibre extracted from chicory roots, is accumulating value in the functional food market, as ongoing research finds the ingredient has several different health benefits.
Most commonly used as a fat and sugar replacer, and increasingly to make claims for gut health benefits, the fibre can also boost bone strength, help control blood sugar levels and may even reduce cholesterol.
One of the leading inulin makers, Orafti has been influential in building the science behind this ingredient, backing the research on inulin's interaction with calcium.
It is now set to benefit from the results of a long-term trial, reported in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (vol 82, issue 2, pp 471-6), which found that daily consumption of a combination of short- and long-chain inulin-type fructans increased calcium absorption and enhanced bone mineral density among teenagers by about 15 per cent.
"It is the only ingredient, apart from calcium, that can make the claim that it improves bone mineral density," Dominique Speleers, VP of sales and marketing, told NutraIngredients.com.
"And with 'enriched with calcium' claims becoming so common, we can offer a point of difference to food makers seeking to enter this market."
US dairy Stonyfield has been using the ingredient across its range for some time, allowing it to make claims for higher calcium absorption. The new study could prompt other companies to take a similar step.
But inulin could also be used in weight management and heart health products, according to manufacturers.
Both Orafti and Dutch firm Sensus participated in a Leatherhead study of the glycaemic index of different carbohydrates. The results showed that inulin had a significantly lower GI than sucrose when it replaced sugar in chocolate or ice cream.
"We've also seen some indications that it lowers cholesterol, although we aren't promoting this yet as we have only done animal studies and this is not enough for us," added Speleers.
These new research directions will give Orafti and other inulin makers significant room for growth, particularly as they face growing pressure from other fibres making prebiotic claims.
"We believe that this is the way to grow. By developing all the nutritional benefits of our products [rather than adding new ones]," said Speleers.
Orafti says its ingredient brand Beneo - now replacing the trade name of its inulin and oligofructose (Raftiline and Raftilose) as well as being used on product packaging - will help it stand out from other prebiotics and also give its smaller customers a hand in communicating the health benefits.
It has already invested in an advertising campaign directly educating consumers about the benefits of the ingredient.
"It will take about five years before we know whether this programme is successful. But we intend to continue doing it," added Speleers.
Major production expansions by all inulin makers suggest they are counting on long-term growth.
Orafti will open its new Chilean plant in March, where it expects to process 200,000 tons of chicory roots each year. With each root containing 17 per cent inulin, this amounts to about 34,000 tons of inulin per year, the same as that already produced in Belgium.
"We will never be the cheapest being a leader, but we expect the factory to bring cost advantages. Most important however will be the reduction in import duties," said Speleers, as it already has a significant customer base in the Americas.
"It is also about security of supply. We want to guarantee risk-free sourcing for our customers, with production in two different climates."