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Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.
Why inulin is popping up on ingredient labels everywhere.
Fortifying with fiber can be a speculative business decision. Which fiber source is best? And for what application? There isn’t one clear answer, but it’s safe to say that inulin makes a strong case for almost any product. So here’s what we know about this soluble fiber and how it can fit your business plans.
Inulin can be found in many plants-from onions to bananas-but chicory root is, by and large, the leading commercial source of food-grade inulin. Traditionally farmed in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, the chicory root is plucked, chopped, and extracted of inulin by a water process. Major inulin suppliers, like Beneo-Orafti (Morris Plains, NJ) and Cargill (Minneapolis), procure inulin from these countries. Beneo also sources from the Southern Hemisphere to bolster its supply.
Other inulin-rich plants are clean-processed in similar fashion to chicory root. Fenchem USA (Chino, CA) supplies organic inulin from Chinese-grown Jerusalem artichoke, and The Tierra Group (Minneapolis) and Ciranda (Hudson, WI) extract organic and conventional inulin from agave, a drought-tolerant succulent farmed in Mexico.
While organic inulin is available from various foreign countries, the USDA’s current opinion is still that organic inulin isn’t adequately available from U.S. crops; for this reason, non-organic inulin is on the USDA National Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, meaning it can be used in products labeled organic.
Inulin from each plant source may differ slightly in functionality, but the resulting fiber levels are quite the same.
Inulin is considered the most studied of prebiotics, non-digestible food substances that pass through the stomach and small intestine fully intact before they are fermented by beneficial bacteria in the colon. This fermentation cleans up the colon by stimulating growth of this good bacteria and inhibiting growth of less-desired inhabitants. Both activities benefit digestive health.
Extensive in vitro and animal trials-even human intervention trials-offer evidence that inulin has this prebiotic effect. The optimal dosage for a minimum prebiotic effect is presumed to be 5 g daily.
As industry and academia remain vigilant in learning more about the role prebiotics have on human health, manufacturers are already eager to market fiber as a prebiotic.
“Our customer feedback indicates that this is what manufacturers are looking to point out on their packaging,” says Oliver de Bats, Fenchem account manager for the United States and Latin America. “Every company is looking for an edge, and because of all of the focus on probiotics, interest is moving towards pre- and probiotics for a complete marketing package.” This, de Bats explains, will leave consumers seeing fiber in a whole new light.
So far, FDA hasn’t authorized a health claim for inulin and digestive health, but other claims may be permissible, if substantiated. Cargill regulatory senior scientist Kristen Dammann, PhD, says that U.S. inulin products often run structure/function claims such as “Inulin is a prebiotic fiber that helps promote digestive health by stimulating the normal, beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract.”
As inulin’s digestive health benefits remain to be fully interpreted, many experts believe inulin has already made a strong case for its effect on mineral absorption. A number of human and animal trials show compelling evidence that this fiber promotes calcium absorption.
“The vast majority of this research is historically on adolescents and postmenopausal women,” says Deborah Schulz, product manager for Cargill Health & Nutrition. “Our opinion is that if more studies were done on the normal population, you’d probably see the same effect: enhanced calcium absorption.”
Higher calcium absorption could benefit many populations, including those with celiac disease, who are notoriously prone to calcium deficiency.
Beyond its prebiotic effect and calcium absorption qualities, inulin could very well please celiacs in other ways. Gluten-free breads represent an area of the food sector in much need of work. Nutritionally speaking, these breads usually consist of refined flours and starches that are likely low in fiber. Inulin, with its soluble fiber, can be of service here.
Another challenge with gluten-free breads is improving their acceptance with consumers. Extrapolating from the chemical makeup of inulin, Beneo president and general manager Joseph O’Neill says that inulin should also be capable of improving the look and feel of these products. “Because inulin has a lot of residual sugars in it, this should contribute a browning reaction to make gluten-free products look similar to whole-wheat products,” says O’Neill. “This is just one way we see inulin complementing the gluten-free areas when you take out wheat gluten and wheat fibers.”
It so happens that a team of Brazilian researchers just reached the O’Neill’s conclusion in a state-sponsored study. Writing in the journal Food & Function in January 2013, researchers from Universidade Federal de SÃ£o Paolo formulated gluten-free bread with Synergy1-a Beneo inulin product-and compared it to a control gluten-free bread. Compared to the control, the inulin-fortified bread yielded better volume, softer crumb, and darker crust and crumb. A tasting panel confirmed improvements in appearance, color, texture, and overall preference.
Because of some loss of inulin during the baking process, the researchers needed to add 12% inulin to the bread recipe in order to yield 4 g of inulin per serving.
Inulin’s impact on food product design extends even further, with potential fat and sugar replacement.
Longer-chain inulin has a curious ability to enhance viscosity and mouthfeel in food products. The advantage here is potential uses of inulin for developing low-fat products, even without the use of gums or other hydrocolloids. A host of trials on creamy-type products has found inulin fruitful in this crusade, and in cases where gelling is desired, some inulins can encourage this characteristic, too.
Inulin’s residual sugar can provide an extra edge for sweetening, too-not necessarily because inulin offers lots of sweetening, but because it can act as the bulking agent lost when sugar is replaced with stevia or another high-intensity sweetener. And because inulin is an indigestible carbohydrate, it has a negligible effect on blood sugar response after eating. The same can’t be said for digestible carbohydrates.
There’s no telling how much this little fiber might benefit manufacturers and consumers. But the next frontier is widely believed to be…weight management.
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Ancient grains are very much en vogue, but grains like barley, amaranth, quinoa, and chia don’t have to be consumed in the same old fashion. FutureCeuticals Inc. (Momence, IL), a sister company of Van Drunen Farms, is a big reason why.
Back in 2001, FutureCeuticals collaborated with the USDA on a patented manufacturing technology, later coined “TRIM,” that would allow grains to suspend in liquid. TRIM technology made fiber’s heart-healthy beta-glucans (for which Canada, the EU, and FDA have a heart health claim) more convenient to formulate with and consume. Now, with newfound interest in ancient grains, FutureCeuticals is seeing a spike in business for its BarleyTrim barley beta-glucans and other grain products.
“Using a high-shear process and jet cooking-with no chemicals whatsoever-our process simply ruptures the cell walls of the material and makes beta-glucans much more available to go into solution,” says company general manager John Hunter. “Consequentially, the materials become very hydrophilic, and, when mixed with milk, juice, or water, become smooth and creamy.”
Therein lies the benefit: formulation-friendly, hydrophilic grains that, as far as Hunter knows, are not possible with other grain products. Potential applications include ready-to-mix powders, soups, juices, and even functional water. “You really can’t normally make a soup using oat bran or barley bran,” he says. “You would have to put it through our TRIM process to create a material that, when mixed with water or any other liquid, would have a linear viscosity-the more bran you add, the thicker and creamier the solution gets.”
Beyond improved mouthfeel, the story of complex carbohydrates is increasingly reaching new audiences. Unlike simple sugars, grain carbohydrates’ slow-burning nature can offer sustained energy for competitive and casual athletes and can modulate absorption of glucose for diabetics. FutureCeuticals says it is seeing sports products increasingly formulated with complex carbs in combination with protein for sustained energy. BarleyTrim has garnered interest for healthy glucose management applications, especially since it is supported by a USDA-led clinical study indicating that the product can improve glucose and insulin response in insulin-resistant subjects.
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For most fibers, proving that eating them can induce a feeling of fullness is still only exploratory. But Danisco (Copenhagen) is making a case for its Litesse polydextrose. The soluble fiber has been tested for things like prebiotic effects and cholesterol support, but two late studies have the company optimistic about a potential effect on satiety. In one of them, published in the journal Appetite, a mid-morning snack formulated with Litesse boosted satiety and lowered energy intake over control. Previously, researchers at Oxford Brooks University observed 10% less energy intake when subjects consumed Litesse in a fruit smoothie one hour before lunch. A new, higher-in-fiber liquid version of Litesse is now available for markets in Asia.
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Normally, carrot juice makers throw out their leftover pomace; but with carrots made of 80% fiber, BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA) saw a resource going to waste. Thanks to a partnership with carrot farms in California, BI Nutraceuticals now offers carrot fiber.
Carrot fiber offers a slightly sweet carrot flavor, mild aroma, and light-orange color. It can be added to foods, beverages, and tablets, and it might look wonderful in clear capsules. While carrot fiber is only standardized for fiber, other phytonutrients, such as vitamin A, are surely present to some extent. The vegetable source will look great on any ingredient label, and it doesn’t take much processing to get this final ingredient.
“We wash it to remove some excess sugars, and then we dry it, sterilize it, and mill to whatever size and texture our customers request,” says BI food technologist Alison Raban. BI can sell both organic and conventional carrot fiber. These fibers complement BI’s apple fiber, better intended for sweet applications and produced in much the same way as carrot fiber.