Ingredients supplier Cargill targets the steadily growing polyol branch of the sweeteners market, signing off over €76 ($99.16) million in investments at plants in Europe and the US.
A nutritive sweetener, the billion euro market for polyols (sugar alcohols) is growing at just under three per cent.
But further growth is expected for these sugar replacers, as health concerns continue to push up overall demand for sweeteners in sugar-free and low-calorie food products.
"The Blair (US) plant expansion adds new polyol hydrogenation and finishing capacity, the first for Cargill in North America. This expansion also includes increased fermentation capacity for erythritol production," says Cargill.
The Krefeld (Germany) and Castelmassa (Italy) expansions include new hydrogenation and finishing capacity for maltitol, mannitol and isomalt, the firm adds.
Although several sugar alcohols may naturally occur in various foods, commercially-available sugar alcohols are synthesised by the hydrogenation of sugars from various sources.
Cargill tells FoodNavigator.com that polyols are sugars to which one or more molecular groups containing an oxygen and a hydrogen atom have been added.
Hydrogenation is the process of reducing the sugar (for example, glucose or dextrose) into other components. The specific process of making polyols involves catalytic, or chemical, hydrogenation, using Raney nickel as the catalyst.
Market analysts Business Communications Company pitched global market demand for polyols in 2001 at about 1,397,000 metric tons in sales volumes. This 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. But with alternative sweeteners estimated to be growing at 8.3 per cent year on year until 2008, growth could be considerably higher for polyols.
With under one third of the calories of sugar, sorbitol -also non-cariogenic - is the most commonly used polyol (sugar alcohol) since it is the least costly. According to BCC more than one million tons of sorbitol liquid and crystalline are sold in the US, Europe and Asia. All other polyols are relatively small in volume, with sales ranging from 20,000 ton 200,000 tons.
Used as a sweetener, the reduced-calorie additive, with 60 per cent sweetness of sugar, has also found favour from food manufacturers for its humectant and texturising properties, particularly in snack foods and beverages.
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. But last year global sorbitol supplier Archer Daniels Midland stepped up production of its liquid sorbitol capacity at its Decatur plant in the US by 60 per cent in order to meet increased demand.
In addition to Cargill, leading players in sorbitol supplies include Archer Daniels Midland, Swiss firm Lonza, Roquette America and SPI Polyols.
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. In the US sorbitol has achieved GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) status.