Researchers at the University of Tsukuba's Gene Experiment Center in Japan claim to have found a stable method to reproduce the chemical miraculin in lettuce.
When the miraculin protein, found in miracle fruit native to West Africa and first isolated in 1994, is combined with acids, it strongly stimulates the sensation of sweetness on the tongue so when sour food is consumed it sends a message to the brain that the food is sweet.
As demand for natural substances grows on the back of consumer demand for health positioned food products, there are real market opportunities for miraculin to grow as an alternative natural sweetener to its synthetic counterparts.
A report published this week by market analysts Freedonia predicts that the market for alternative sweeteners holds considerable potential - growing 8.3 per cent year on year until 2008 - as rising health concerns drive consumers towards sugar free products and food makers introduce zero-calorie or low-calorie sugar substitutes into their new product formulations.
But a key barrier to growth has been the difficulty of large scale production. The latest study may have overcome the obstacle with media reports in Japan saying that the scientists, led by Hiroshi Ezura, have succeeded in genetically modifying lettuce plants to produce the protein.
In the UK, the market for artificial sweeteners struggled during the latter years of the last decade, with sales falling away by around 10 per cent in both volume and value terms to 2000, say market analysts Mintel.
But since 2000 the market has been back in growth, in both value and volume terms, the latter rising by almost 10 per cent between 2000 and 2002, to an equivalent of 62,000 tonnes. "Market value in real terms is at best holding steady, hindered by a slight fall in average price," said Mintel.
Some key players are enjoying growth in the market. Maker of the sucralose brand Splenda, UK sugar and sweeteners group Tate & Lyle, last week said a global lift in demand for its sugar replacer 600 times sweeter than sugar had helped offset a dip in figures at the firm's European starch operations.
Other sweeteners competing in the sweeteners marketplace are the non-caloric acesulfame potassium, low-calorie aspartame, and saccharin.
While the Japanese development might eventually open up production opportunities, growth potential of the miraculin sweetener may be impacted by consumer suspicions over foodstuffs derived from genetically modified sources, that sees food makers opting out of GM ingredient use in today's consumer food market.
"There is a lot to be said for keeping it natural rather than going down the cloning route," Dr. Kodzo Gbewonyo, president of US miraculin-pioneer firm BioResources International told FoodNavigator.com.
The small New Jersey based firm claims to have overcome the problem of capturing the active ingredient in the red miraculin berry, and thereby overcoming a production obstacle.
"We have developed a process to extract, stabilise and freeze-dry the ingredient immediately after the berry has been harvested," said Dr. Gbewonyo, that has patented the purification method.
The firm has about 50 acres of miracle fruit in Ghana, a plant that takes five years to reach the first harvest, and has been working on bringing the protein from a development stage to a full commercial status in consumer products.
Despite the massive potential in the food industry for the product, Dr. Gbewonyo said the firm is currently targeting the supplement industry, and particularly dry mix beverages.
"Regulatory approval for food additives in the US is a barrier to growth for a small company that lacks the investment capacity for the raft of tests, and getting the ingredient approved for access to the supplement market is quicker," said Dr. Gbewonyo.