Prebiotic ingredients, or those that boost the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut, are being increasingly added to foods as the insoluble fibres are stable in a wider variety of applications than the better known probiotic bacteria - currently limited to chilled products.
In addition, the promotional efforts of probiotic suppliers, who have significantly raised public awareness of gut health in recent years, has allowed for relatively fast entrance onto the marketplace.
Yet most of the research on prebiotic activity has been limited to inulin. Despite this, a number of other ingredients are beginning to be marketed for gut health, while still more may have prebiotic properties not yet identified.
The leading UK food research centre Leatherhead Food believes there is a need for a comparative study of the well-established commercially available prebiotics, inulin and fructooligosaccharides, with the lesser-known ones such as soya oligosaccharides or resistant starch.
It is co-ordinating new research, to be carried out at the University of Reading on a high-tech gut model, to rank the best to the least effective.
Fiona Angus, business manager of Nutrition at Leatherhead Food, told NutraIngredients.com: "We have done a lot of work on GI recently and were looking at pectin. We realized that it could also be prebiotic and then thought of investigating this area further."
"We've become aware that a lot of other ingredients are talking about this property. But all the research done on prebiotics has used inulin."
Leatherhead is currently looking for ingredient and functional food manufacturers to collaborate on the research, which could assess ingredients including soya oligosaccharides, resistant starch, isomalto-oligosaccharides, lactosucrose and xylo-oligosaccharides.
Among the most novel prebiotics are tagatose, pectin, dextrins and larch arabinogalactan.
The researchers will also look at blends of prebiotics.
Currently, the European prebiotic market is dominated by fructan (inulin and fructooligosaccharides) and galactooligosaccharide products, sales of which were thought to be worth about €87 million in 2003, according to Frost & Sullivan.
But while the analysts expect this market to grow to €179.7 million by 2010, growth will be affected by the impending EU regulation on health claims. The proposals seek to prohibit vague or 'soft' claims that a product can promote gut health, making clinical evidence of benefits vital to any 'hard' claims made on finished products.
The new research will provide data on molecular weight distributions, performances in specific product applications, and most importantly, activity in the gut, to be monitored by assessing microflora changes (and metabolite formation) in validated systems.
Companies looking for further information or wishing to be involved in the study should contact Dr Pretima Titoria, principal food research scientist, before 29 July.
The research is scheduled to start in August/September