Kalys, the only European supplier of konjac or glucomannan flour, has gained EU funding worth €1.51 milllion to further investigate the prebiotic properties of the plant fibre along with a Dutch partner.
Prebiotic ingredients, or those that boost the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut, are currently worth €87 million in the European marketplace but are forecast to reach €179.7 million by 2010, according to Frost & Sullivan.
The market has been largely created by three inulin producers, all based in Europe, but other ingredient manufacturers are increasingly looking to promote the prebiotic effect of their products as evidence suggests that prebiotics could be even more useful than the probiotic bacteria that they feed.
Prebiotics, which are derived from insoluble fibres and oligosaccharides, can be incorporated into a wider variety of end products than probiotic bacteria - currently limited to chilled products - and prebiotics are also set to benefit from the promotional efforts of probiotic suppliers, who have significantly raised public awareness of gut health in recent years.
Early findings by Kalys show that when broken up into smaller molecules, through a process called 'cracking', glucomannan oligosaccharides have a more marked prebiotic effect on lactobacillus and bifido bacteria in vitro than inulin and fructoligosaccharide.
The company, which has applied for a patent to protect the technology, could significantly increase the value and applications for its konjac products if these results are confirmed in larger trials.
Philippe Vieille, managing director of the firm, told NutraIngredients.com: "We're aiming for a niche position. We're not going to compete with the leading prebiotic players."
"But we hope to have the results from our research next year, and be able to launch the first products at FiE next year."
The firm is planning to create synbiotics, ingredients that combine probiotic and prebiotic properties, working with Dutch partner Winclove Bio Industries that specializes in probiotic bacteria.
Called the Glucoligo project, the research could also help improve the image of the product following a Europe-wide ban on jelly mini cups that contained konjac. Reports during 2002 that the sweets caused choking in children focused, 'unfairly' according to Vieille, on the gum ingredient.
New prebiotic ingredients derived from konjac will however require European approval before they can be used in food as the long-chain sugars currently permitted in food will be modified and split into smaller components.
Kalys is currently in discussions with the European authorities to extend authorization for the glucomannan derivatives.
It has also been closely involved in identification of raw materials for glucomannan extraction and modification, working closely with producers in China, which will offer advantages during the research.
"We master the sourcing of raw materials and cultivation but produce the ingredient ourselves. Our customers like to have a European company guaranteeing the quality of the product," added Vieille.