Manufacturers of natural vitamin E claim that the product is twice as effective as the more common synthetic version, thanks to a molecule that the human body is more able to absorb. They have sought to distinguish the more expensive product from synthetic vitamin E by promoting this higher bioavailability but building awareness has been slow.
Now new European regulations that require genetically modified ingredients to be labelled could further hamper growth of the vitamin. Most makers of natural vitamin E cannot guarantee that their raw material comes from non-GM soya but in some European markets, major retailers are demanding that the product is identity preserved (IP).
"We have been told that retailers like Holland & Barrett, Tescos and Sainsbury's will not carry it [vitamin E derived from GM soya] on their shelves," said Brian Craig, international sales manager for Zila. The US firm is hoping to introduce its enhanced natural vitamin E to the UK market in the future.
"But the problem is being able to get enough identity preserved material," he added.
Spanish company Vitaecaps, which claims to be the leading producer of natural vitamin E in Europe, confirmed the problem. Vitaecaps says it is probably the main supplier of IP-certified natural vitamin E to European customers but it is currently unable to meet demand for the product, which is running at more than double the firm's current capacity.
However Juan Marfil, commerce director at the firm, told NutraIngredients.com that there is not enough non-GM soya being produced to allow for expansion.
"We will not expand if we cannot find enough IP material," he said.
The group, which produces 20 tons of natural vitamin E annually, used only regular soya last year but this year about 80 per cent of its supplies are derived from non-GM beans.
In April, around the same time as the European Union brought in the strict labelling regulations, Vitaecaps received third party certification for its non-GM vitamin E from Cert-ID.
"In the space of a year we have become well-known as a supplier to this niche market. Most of our previous customers are now demanding non-GM derived product but I don't have enough material to meet this demand," said Marfil.
Craig added that not enough attention has been given to this problem.
"Eventually there may be more [non-GM natural vitamin E]. But I don't think there is as much available as people think."
Industry heavyweight Cognis says it has been working on being able to supply non-GM natural source vitamin E for over five years. "Within the past year, we have been able to secure a limited supply of the natural vitamin E raw material that is not subject to labelling under the EU Regulation…regarding genetically modified foods," it said in a statement.
It has produced a very small quantity of natural vitamin E thatdoes not require GM labelling but the material has beendesignated for a few customers "from whom Cognis has long-term vitamin E commitments", said the group.
It added: "The material pricing was set at a significant premium over GM vitamin E due to the increased cost to produce."
Manufacturers looking to produce non-GM vitamin E have to separate the raw material - a distillation of soybean oil - creating significant logistical issues as well as costs to guarantee traceability.
Marfil predicts that more soy growers will turn to non-GM production to meet demand for the European Union and take advantage of the higher prices.
And Craig believes that within two years, the situation will have eased as more manufacturers invest in IP natural vitamin E.
But he warned that the time to establish new supplies may hold a threat for the marketplace. "If these retailers hold through, there will be an acute shortage of vitamin E in the marketplace. And we have to hope that consumers won't have given up on natural vitamin E by the time it regains its position on the marketplace."
Cognis reported that it had seen a surge in the volume of its natural vitamin E sales of some 9 per cent last year, driven by a rising awareness of the product's benefits, being promoted by the company through expanded consumer education programmes in the US and Europe.
But while it continues to look for ways to meet the demand for non-GM natural source vitamin E, Cognis says that "due to the complexity of the supply chain and natural vitamin E purification process, quantities will be limited, product range will be restricted, and price will be significantly higher than GM vitamin E".
These factors are likely to erode any benefits of natural vitamin E over the plentiful, and non-GM synthetic variant.
And European consumers are unlikely to change their stance on GM in the near future, as demonstrated by the lack of food marketers willing to sell a product with the GM labeling. Greenpeace said this week that it had found only a handful of GMO-labelled products on sale in European supermarkets, one hundred days after the tough new rules on GMO labelling for food became applicable.
Since 18 April, the campaigners have found only four products containing genetically modified ingredients in Germany, two in the UK and the Czech Republic, and none in Italy or Austria. The most GMO-labelled products - 14 - were found in France.