A spate of acquisitions by larger natural ingredients companies indicates consolidation in the market place mirroring that of the industry at large, say industry experts, helping them gain weight to cater to the needs of large clients.
Last year Israeli flavours and natural extracts firm Frutarom completed no less than seven acquisitions across its two business areas; and last week France's Naturex announced the acquisition of Berkem's Actifs Innovants division, hot on the heals of buying US flavour ingredients firm Chart Corporation in December (its third buy of the 2007).
Andre Sawyer, managing editor of intelligence service Mergermarket, said there is a macrofactor at play. Consumer leaning towards health and wellness oriented products, so ingredients companies are having to move in that direction too.
"At the moment companies need to bolt up and buy in new business line to take advantage of the trend at the consumer level," he said.
The trend towards consolidation indicates a need to create market power, as more established companies seek to source ingredient from natural players.
Typically, large companies tend to deal with large players, and smaller with smaller. Thus, as interest in natural ingredients grows from larger manufacturers, natural suppliers have to grow in order to be taken seriously.
What is more, said Sawyer, those with a number of vertical business lines at their disposal (such as Naturex now has with Actifs Innovants) are likely to be better business partners than those whose activities are centred on one sole line.
Sawyer noted that consolidation in natural ingredients is set against a back drop of consolidation in the wider food industry, with some major moves by the likes of Kerry, Danisco, and Givaudan.
Compared with these heavy-weights, he called Naturex and Frutarom mid-tier companies. (There are some differences between the two, however - most notably that Frutarom is active in flavours, and Naturex only in flavour ingredients).
At the natural end of the market, on the other hand, which tends to be more fragmented, they are big fish.
Beyond his own company's activities, Naturex president Jacques Dikansky told FoodNavigator.com that customers worldwide are expecting more and more capabilities from suppliers to support their application work.
In particular, he said suppliers need to have analytical capabilities.
"It is hard to answer those requests if you are too small," he said. "Companies will have to be bigger and bigger to invest in clinical work."
As to the implications of this trend for natural ingredients, he believes it will help growth of the industry.
However Sawyer pointed out that if consolidation goes too far, it can actually have a blighting effect on research and development - such as has occurred with some of the pharmaceutical powerhouses.
"In larger companies the R&D function can be impaired at a certain level, as innovation is stifled by bureaucracy."
He added, however, that he does not think the ingredients industry is at that stage yet. An example he cited is Tate & Lyle which is a major player that has still show an ability to develop new technology and business space.
So where will it end?
"For every business that gets bought up, there is always one being created," said Sawyer.
Indeed, in his view, consolidation can actually breed new entrants. Certain people are predisposed to be entrepreneurial and the "seepage of human cattle" that stems from a merger can lead some of these souls to set up on their own.
No indication, then, that hungry firms are likely to run out of small but interesting acquisition fodder any time soon.