ZuChem's manufacturing process for its mannitol sweetener is only the third one recognised by the FDA since it amended its legislation, according to the company.
The government body decided back in November 2004 that it would alter food additive regulations to permit the manufacture of mannitol by the fermentation of sugars such as fructose, glucose or maltose by the action of the microorganism Lactobacillus intermedius (fermentum), in response to a petition filed by zuChem.
David Demirjian, the president of zuChem, believes demand for mannitol - prices of which remain high - is on the increase. He estimates $100 million (€76 million) in annual sales worldwide for the reduced-calorie sweetener, which the firm plans initially to target towards the food ingredient industry.
Demirjian hopes that zuChem will offer a more consistent and cost- effective alternative to currently available mannitol sweeteners that are manufactured with a chemical hydrogenation process. He believes his company's manufacturing approach will simplify manufacturing and reduce the cost of the compound.
The approach, says the firm, allows up to 72 per cent of corn fructose to be converted into mannitol within 15 hours, instead of the 120 hours needed by a rival company.
In comparison, high-pressure hydrogenation converts only 25-30 per cent of a fructose-glucose mixture into mannitol, which sells for around $3.32 per pound. The rest of the mixture is primarily sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that sells for about $0.73 per pound.
ZuChem noted that its method uses a Lactobacillus intermedius NRR B-3693 bacterium strain to grow a broth of high-fructose syrup in a fermentation flask. The broth is then refrigerated and the "leftovers" (white, needle-like crystals of mannitol) removed.
The company plans, moreover, to apply this approach to the production of the sweetner xylitol, whose market Demirjian sees as "poised to expand dramatically if it can be produced inexpensively from readily available raw materials".
The global market for polyols, to which mannitol belongs, is estimated at $1.3 billion (€0.98 bn), with sales volumes of 1,397,000 metric tons in 2000. That volume is expected to exhibit an average annual growth rate of 2.7 per cent for the next five years to reach 1,597,000 metric tons. Sales will total roughly $1.4 billion by 2005 as the market grows at 1.3 percent, according to a study by Business Communications Company (BCC).
Market observers maintain that the higher prices of polyols in comparison to sugar will hold back demand for the product both at an EU and world level.
Unlike high intensity sweeteners such as aspartame, in Europe natural sweeteners, which include high fructose syrups, are covered by the protective and supportive system of the CMO Sugar - the common organisation of markets for the sugar sector.
CMO Sugar, in place since 1967, is part of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Reform to this sector is imminent with reform underway to update the regime, left virtually untouched since its creation more than 30 years ago.
In Europe a handful of polyols - sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, maltitiol and isomalt - have been approved by the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) for use in foodstuffs and fall under the 'additives' label.
The appeal of polyols - sugar alcohols industrially produced through hydrogenation of saccharides - lies not only in their low calorie content but also their suitability for diabetic food. Since they are not or only partly metabolised they require a lower insulin dose for digestion than sugar.