For the past three years, Ferrazone, made by Dutch chemicals group Akzo Nobel , has been added to soy sauce in China as part of a project to boost the population's intake of iron. It is now also being used in the Philippines, Brazil, Columbia, Thailand and Kenya, among others.
But Akzo Nobel's Functional Chemicals unit is now looking at entry to developed markets too, where it sees good potential in niche products.
Last month it presented the product at the IFT show in Chicago, a 'soft launch', according to Geoff Smith, business director of the company's Asia Pacific activities and responsible for Ferrazone.
"We certainly don't think that broad fortification is the right approach for the US and Europe but it is still significant for certain segments of the population," Smith told NutraIngredients.com.
"Private companies are already using it," he added, pointing out that Kellogg's holds a patent for fortification of cornflakes with the compound.
And last December, the world's number two food maker, Kraft, gained self-affirmed GRAS status for use of the compound in powdered meal replacements, flavoured milk, and fruit-flavoured beverages.
The company intends to fortify beverages for areas of the world with a high prevalence of iron deficiency, according to the application.
"Iron is a particularly difficult compound to formulate so people are looking for alternatives to those products already on the market. There is interest from food companies because of the low reactivity of this product," explained Smith.
Adding iron to drinks is technically difficult as the high moisture increases the reactivity of water-soluble iron compounds, resulting in unwanted odours and metallic offtastes. L-ascorbic acid is often used to mask these tastes.
The iron in Ferrazone, or sodium iron EDTA (NaFeEDTA), is stable however, and does not form off-flavours or colours, nor does it react with the flavours in an orange drink for example, in the way that unstabilised iron can.
Akzo Nobel has also shown that wheat flour fortified with Ferrazone copes much better in storage than when other forms of iron are added.
The firm had been making an industrial grade of the compound for several years, supplying it for plants too. But a major drive by non-governmental organizations to combat high levels of iron deficiency around the world - some 3 billion people are thought to be affected - triggered new demand for the compound that is said to be two to three times more bioavailable than ferrous sulphate.
After significant investment to bring the compound up to food-grade standards, it is now sold at $9 per kg, much more expensive than other iron forms but more effective, according to the firm.
"If you are going to give someone 40 per cent of the iron they need for the year at the cost of 10 cents a year, no-one is so poor that they can't afford this, unless they can't afford to eat," suggests Smith.
"So why would you want a less effective supplement at only 5 cents a year?"
Akzo Nobel has now filed an additional GRAS application for the substance's use in soy sauce and fish sauce.
The iron compond has long been available in supplement form in France and the UK, appealing to supplement makers because it does not stain teeth or cause the gastric upset seen particularly in pregnant women after ingesting ferrous sulphate.
Moreover, with higher bioavailability, formulators can use less of the compound.
But foods will likely remain the main focus for the product.
"I don't expect it to be a €300 million product or create a whole new business unit, but we think there will be some return on investment," said Smith.
The firm believes that Ferrazone could cut iron deficiency by as much as 80 per cent in populations where the problem is widespread and foods like soy sauce are widely consumed.
The company is finalising a dossier for submission to EFSA to allow the ingredient in PARNUTs products and other foods and has also filed an application with Australia and New Zealand authorities
Next it will tackle Japan, and also Codex in the future.
"We think it's a great story. There aren't many companies that can have such a positive influence on potentially halting a large portion of the world's iron deficiency."