The partners plan to build production facilities in the US (using domestically sourced raw materials) and in Thailand (using locally-grown sugarcane and cassava), and engage in further R&D collaborations at Thailand Food Innopolis, an innovation center north of Bangkok.
Tooth friendly, zero calorie (0.2cals/g), good for diabetics (it doesn’t raise blood sugar), and well-tolerated in the gut (unlike some other polyols); erythritol is about 60-70% as sweet as sugar.
It also blends well with high intensity sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit and is used in everything from reduced sugar ice cream, to confectionery, baked goods, beverages such as Zevia, and table-top sweeteners such as Truvia and SPLENDA Naturals.
A white crystalline, odorless product which rapidly dissolves in water to create a clear, low viscosity, colorless solution, erythritol contributes no calories because it passes through the human body almost unchanged.
However, cost has proved a barrier to the wider use of the ingredient, which is expensive to produce, says DFI.
Typically, firms producing erythritol in commercial quantities do so via fermentation (where a sugar-rich substrate is fermented by a specialized yeast strain to yield erythritol), although it can also be produced via chemical synthesis.
However, these are slow processes and the yields are not great, claims DFI, which has patented a ‘green electrochemistry’ process developed at Purdue University - and licensed to DFI - that it claims can deliver higher yields from the starter material (anything that contains glucose, for example, sugar or corn) and slash production times from days to hours.
According to Mitr Phol Group, global erythritol consumption topped 65,000 tons in 2015, and is forecast to grow at 7-8% annually; while consumption of xylitol topped 250,000 tons, with forecast growth of 8-9% annually.
Production times slashed from hours to days
Speaking to us back in 2013, DFI chief technology officer Jonathan Stapley explained: “Producing erythritol via fermentation can take several days. Our method takes less than an hour and produces little or no waste. We also achieve a higher yield and we can maximise efficiency by selling the co-products of the production process [such as formic acid].”
DFI’s technique involves passing raw materials through an electrolytic cell, a technique well known for treating water or making chlorine but not something that has been used for industrial-scale applications in food before.
As for xylitol - a sweetener found naturally in fruits and vegetables - Stapely said this has historically been produced on a commercial scale through the hydrolysis of a variety of raw materials from birchwood to corn. However, this technique typically involved the use of “acids, high pressure and temperature, chemical catalysts, and several separation and purification steps," he claimed. More recently, manufacturers have have used microbes that convert xylose and arabinose into xylitol via a fermentation process.
But both techniques are less efficient than using electrochemistry, claimed Stapley. “We can transform starch or sugar into xylitol on a one to one molar basis. The only by-products of our process are hydrogen, oxygen and bicarbonate. The process also takes hours instead of days.”
DFI co-founder: This joint venture will provide access to the world's largest market
Paul Magnotto, who founded DFI with Stapley in 2005, said DFI had been producing erythritol from a pilot plant in Lancaster, NY, for some time, and was now beginning engineering work on a commercial scale production facility at an undiclosed US location. Previous reports indicated that corn would be the primary raw material for the US facility, but the company has not confirmed this.
“Importantly, this joint venture partnership will provide access to the world's largest market while leveraging a well-established customer base and technical prowess for factories in Asia.”
Richard Bellas, DFI’s Chief Commercial Officer, and a 22 veteran of PepsiCo, told FoodNavigator-USA: “DFI’s patented technologies break new ground that will allow economic efficiencies to deliver products that already have enormous consumer acceptance."
He added: "[DFI's process uses] no chemicals and the process produces product without any genetic material [some manufacturers of fermentation-derived erythritol use genetically engineered yeast strains, although Cargill says it uses a yeast organism that is 'found in nature']. There are environmental and energy consumption benefits as well that leads to efficiencies.
"We believe as carbonated soft drinks continue to shrink, companies will look for sweeteners that do not have to be blended with cane sugar for taste acceptability. In addition, the science package in terms of carbohydrate control and dental health is very strong, especially for kids, who tend to drink and eat lots of sweetened products. It’s a combination of offering validated health benefits such as for folks with diabetes or obesity and avoiding all the baggage associated with other artificial sweeteners – the proverbial win-win."
'The proverbial win win...'
Krisda Monthienvichienchai, CEO and President of Mitr Phol Group, said: “We are looking forward to furthering fruition from the know-how gained from this joint development by building natural sweetener production plants in Thailand Food Innopolis in the near future.
“The research will focus on producing natural and bio-based sweetener products like erythritol and xylitol using food crops grown in Thailand, and further make these products more viable as sweeteners of choice for both the local food industry and health-conscious consumers.”
Mitr Phol Group claims to be the world’s fourth largest and Thailand’s largest sugar producer, Asia’s largest bio-mass power producer, and Asia’s largest bio-ethanol producer.