The research showing that olive polyphenols could help protect bones has been carried out by a special team at French research institute INRA.
Now, BioActor, a natural health product development company set up six months ago as a spin-off from Ghent University, has licensed the worldwide rights to INRA's patents on using olive polyphenols for osteoporosis prevention in food, supplements and herbal medicines.
The deal could give it a major advantage among marketers of olive-derived ingredients, most of which focus on the less targeted, antioxidant properties.
"There has been no other research done on the bone-sparing effects of olive polyphenols and there are no other patents covering this application," noted Hans van der Saag, the founder and CEO of BioActor (www.bio-actor.com).
The novel application area will also be of interest to those firms seeking to enter the bone health category with a new product.
Bone health is set to become a major segment of the supplements and functional foods market, as ageing populations and the additional strain from obesity swell the numbers affected by osteoporosis. Already the lifetime risk for a woman to have an osteoporotic fracture is 30-40 per cent and in men the risk is about 13 per cent.
But while the World Health Organisation calls the condition its biggest global healthcare problem, the main natural product targeted at bone health - calcium supplements - is entering a mature category, and a recent report from Frost & Sullivan warns that the supplements are set to see 'fierce cannibalisation' of sales from therapeutic drugs as consumers look for faster remedies.
At INRA, researchers led by Dr Veronique Coxam at the Clermont Ferrand unit, were inspired by epidemiological evidence showing that people who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet were less likely to have osteoporosis. They began investigating the effects of olive oil and the different compounds of the olive plant on bone metabolism.
Their early work revealed that both oleuropin and hydroxytyrosol had an impact on inflammation in bones. These findings have since been confirmed in animal studies.
In one of the most recent studies, Dr Coxam's team describes in the July 2004 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition (vol 92, issue 1, pp119-27) how both oleuropein and olive-oil feeding can prevent inflammation-induced osteopenia in rats that had had their ovaries removed.
This animal model is designed to represent senile osteoporosis, or the bone-wasting condition that effects the elderly, as it combines both hormone deficiency with chronic inflammation.
The animals do not fully recover all of their bone density compared to controls, but in this research, those rats fed with oleuropin recovered about 70-75 per cent of their bone density, a 50 per cent improvement on those that were not fed the supplement.
BioActor and INRA are now collaborating to confirm these results in a human validation study, due to begin early next year.
"The application is clearly suitable for supplements," Van der Saag told NutraIngredients.com.
"Based on metabolic weight, we think it could work with doses of less than 0.5g," he added.
The company will initially focus on oleuropin, a compound particularly present in olive leaves, as it has been shown to be most effective of three polyphenols tested and is the easiest to produce, said Van der Saag.
He suggests it could be added to an all-round bone health product containing calcium and vitamin D.
"The polyphenols have a different mode of action to calcium so we think they could be complementary," he explained.
While calcium is a building block required in the formation of bone throughout life, olive polyphenols appear to reduce inflammation-mediated bone loss, one of the elements that affects older people and leads to osteoporosis.
"The target population will be those over the age of 60," said Van der Saag. "There is also an inflammatory component in the bone loss that occurs in postmenopausal women so this could be a secondary target group."
BioActor also owns the rights to dairy peptides found to reduce blood pressure by a Spanish institute and will shortly announce a new product through an agreement with a German firm.