The carotenoid found in red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes has been shown to be a powerful antioxidant, with trials demonstrating protective effects against heart disease and prostate cancer.
Israeli firm LycoRed Natural Products has developed a series of lycopene extracts for use in foods and supplements designed to take advantage of these benefits.
But while some major brands in Japan are using the ingredient for health-boosting yoghurts, such as Nestle's 2B that targets skin protection, European food manufacturers have so far been slow to make use of the heart health ingredient.
This is due to a combination of factors, but the primary one may be related to its use as a natural colourant, additive E160d, within the European Union. A novel foods approval, usually for foods that have no significant history of use within the European Union prior to May 1997, could help remove this barrier.
"We don't need novel foods approval because the product was available before 1997. But we decided to go for it because it will then be considered as a food ingredient," said Joost Overeem, sales manager at LycoRed.
"The quantities allowed as an additive are minimal. But we recommend 3-5 mg lycopene per serving to gain the benefits. So it will help if we have official status as a food ingredient and can then add higher amounts," he told NutraIngredients.com.
This would also allow for health claims as claims cannot be made on a colourant.
LycoRed, first to market a natural lycopene as a functional food ingredient, applied to the UK's novel foods committee in September. But gaining novel foods approval is time-consuming, typically taking between one and two years to come through, depending on the dossier of science submitted.
The process also presents some risk - if its safety fails to be approved, this would affect other products like supplements already on the market.
Another carotenoid growing fast in the supplements market, lutein, also falls into the same grey area as lycopene under European regulations. Lutein is used as a colourant in some foods like pastries and classified as E161b.
However Pedro Vieira, European sales and marketing manager of lutein supplier Kemin Health, says the firm has a different strategy and is "definitely not" considering applying for novel foods approval.
"We've been able to approve it as a food ingredient in France in early 2003 and haven't had any major problems using it as an ingredient in other countries," he said.
This has allowed for two health claims in France.
"Also the amount allowed as a colourant far surpasses that needed for health benefits," he added.
LycoRed's strategy underlines its determination to target the food sector while Kemin believes there is much more work to be done in the supplement sector before it moves into functional foods.
LycoRed, the leading lycopene supplier in Europe, is expecting to gain feedback early next year. If positive, the novel foods approval would allow for use of its lycopene oleoresin in a range of food products, including yoghurts, cheese, bread, sausages and cereal bars.
The handful of lycopene-fortified foods available in Europe so far include a drink made by Spanish juice firm Juver. A Unilever margarine containing lutein and lycopene on the German market has been withdrawn, possibly due to a lack of consumer awareness of the benefits of these ingredients.