Green tea, traditionally consumed in Asia, has been the focus of much research in recent years, associating its powerful antioxidant compounds with anti-cancer activity, anti-bacterial effects and heart health.
But until recently, green tea extracts imported from China and India have generally been used in beverages.
Now companies such as DSM and Greentech, both participating in a congress on the extract at next weekend's Tea Expo, say they have products that are suitable for supplements designed with specific health benefits in mind.
DSM, which launched its highly purified EGCG product Teavigo last year, has recently gained approval from the Italian ministry of health for its safe use in supplements, food and cosmetics. The first supplement containing the ingredient is expected to launch early next year.
French plant extract firm Greentech is also hoping to push its product, a combination of extracts from green tea as well as white and red teas, towards the supplement market, after its successful use by leading cosmetics brands such as Clarins and L'Oreal.
However there remains significant variation between these and other green tea extracts available to food and supplement makers. The two European firms, entering a market flooded with products thanks to large raw material supply and numerous Asian suppliers, have both sought to maximize the antioxidant potential of their extracts.
But while DSM claims that focusing on the major polyphenol in green tea - epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) - allows the company to clearly define the efficacy and safety of the ingredient, Greentech and others aim to recreate an extract that more closely resembles the one found in nature.
DSM scientific expert Max Blum says the development of Teavigo is based on the evidence supporting EGCG (the extract has an EGCG content of more than 90 per cent).
"When you look at green tea and its benefits, this is the antioxidant that comes out strongest. It is also the major ingredient, accounting for about 60 per cent of all green tea catechins," he told NutraIngredients.com.
"There are some data on other catechins that have shown health benefits. But it is logical to take the one with the most antioxidant potential. And if you have a single, pure compound, you can do defined work with it. With multiple components you cannot explain the physiological effects," he added.
French company Greentech works on a different basis. "To retain one single polyphenol is to lose all the properties of the others found in the tea. We wanted to preserve this and have combined different polyphenols from green, white and red tea," said Dominique Crestia of the firm's analysis department.
"Both in vivo and in vitro studies have shown the Tealine product to have action on tissues, cells and on a molecular level," she said.
The company says it included white tea extract for its high protection of DNA, allowing it to be included in anti-ageing formulas. Red tea, or rooibos, has the highest flavonoid level of all the teas, while green tea contains one of the most potent antioxidants.
Both companies will present their products at a workshop organized by the Societe Francaise des Antioxydants on the final day of the Tea Expo in Paris. It is designed to help food formulators choose between the variety of products available and learn about safety and recommended dosage levels.
Blum will also discuss some of the application areas for Teavigo.
"There are some good studies that have suggested the thermogenesis effect of green tea, offering perspectives for slimming products. Some also show positive effects on glucose levels and triglycerides, although in many studies there was likely some synergistic effect from caffeine," he noted.
DSM currently has a human trial on green tea underway, with results out next year. It is also investigating benefits to oral health, with evidence to show that green tea compounds have anti-bacterial activity.
One firm already marketing concentrated green tea extracts for their antioxidant properties is the European division of Japan-based Taiyo Kagaku. Its Sunphenon range of six different green tea extracts is being used by chewing gum manufacturers and in bakery products.
But Josef Skrna, European sales and marketing director, says further work is required to develop consumer awareness of green tea benefits.
"This is a new market that we have to develop. Not enough is known about green tea yet, perhaps because EGCG is a difficult name. It sounds quite chemical," he commented.
A high EGCG content also increases the price. Green tea extracts offered by Taiyo, which go up to 40 per cent EGCG concentration, range from €20-€90 per kg.
But while the green tea beverage itself remains a very niche product in most European markets, extract producers see strong potential for supplements.
"Demand in 2003 from Europe was about 500 metric tons, mostly coming from beverages and cosmetics. But supplements will become important. For instance there is evidence that green tea may lower cholesterol and could compete with phytosterols," said Skrna.