Cosucra started its shift towards healthy ingredients in 2003 when it invested more than €60m to covert its sugar plant in northern France into a facility for its fibres, which can be used as fat- and sugar-replacers, have probiotic properties and can enhance calcium absorption.
But since then, it has increased its share in the European inulin market by 25 per cent, meriting Frost and Sullivan's Competitive Strategy Leadership award. This year it is ceasing to supply pure fructose altogether, putting all its eggs in the healthy ingredients basket in response to industry and consumer demand.
Cosucra is one of three main players in the European oligofructose market, alongside market leader Orafti, Sensus and synthetic fructo-oligosaccharide maker Beghin Meiji. Cosucra marketing manager Kristof Werbrouck would not reveal to NutraIngredients.com the company's precise market share on the grounds that it would enable the competitors to work out precise sales figures.
But its inulin capacity is known to have been expanded from 15,000 to 45,000 tonnes with the conversion of the French facility.
Frost and Sullivan valued the European fructan market (inulin, oligofructose and fructo-oligosaccharides) at €87m in May 2005, forcasting growth of 9.7 per cent to €179.7m by 2007.
According to Werbrouck, fructans make up around 75 per cent of the soluble fibre market; while insoluble fibres are most commonly use for product functionality, soluble fibre are used to boost a food's health profile.
The rest of the soluble fibre market is made up of more niche ingredients like polydextrose, which was only recently classified as a fibre, Roquette's resistant dextrone and soluble guar gum from Novartis.
Werbrouck said that key markets in Europe, where its growth has been exceptional, are Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy.
But he said that the US is the fastest growing market for fructans in general. In 2004 the market mushroomed with the low-carb craze, and Cosucra had recipes already available that allowed its customers to use its ingredients to develop low-carb products quickly. The company has had an exclusive marketing and distribution agreement with Cargill in the US for several years.
Although the low-carb trend did not last, Werbrouck said that since 2005 it has been replaced by low-GI, which looks to be more enduring as it has more scientific basis. Moreover, the food industry is developing products to address the obesity problem, including low-sugar, low-calorie and low-fat - all of which inulin can be used for.
To Webrouck, inulin's fortunes look bright. "It is the right ingredient in the right decade," he said, "where low calorie products are booming." Chicory, from which inulin is derived, is an annual crop, so all three natural suppliers have had to predict the volume of demand a year in advance.
Although this is risky, the only ways around it are to have two production bases in different parts of the world so as to have two seasons, or to develop technologies to allow the harvest to be preserved until later in the year.
It remains something of a precise art, since excess or shortfall on the market could impact market prices. Cosucra claims to have been spot on with its predictions for the last 10 years.
Prices are around the €2.5 to €3 per kilo ballpark (on the spot market) - although this may vary depending on duties applicable in the buyer's country.
By and large prices are stable, although Orafti and Sensus raised them slightly in late 2004 in response to higher energy costs and farmers' increasing costs.