The strong scientific evidence for the cholesterol-lowering effects of plant sterols, and recent safety approvals from the European Union's novel foods committee, is boosting demand for the ingredient, thought to be growing at around 15 per cent annually.
However with research into other cholesterol-lowering compounds ongoing, suppliers in the still small sterol market are looking at options that will ensure continued growth of the market and protect the ingredient's share in foods for heart health.
Many of the newer suppliers are opting for wood sources rather than the traditional soya raw material. Finnish company Forchem announced this week that it will start building a new plant to produce 4,000-6,000 tons of sterols annually. Canada's Forbes Medi-Tech, already present on the European market with sterols derived from forestry byproducts, is also expanding its capacity.
Meanwhile Arboris, a new subsidiary of US-based Arizona Chemical, an currently the largest producer of pine tree-derived sterols, is planning expansion at its plant in Georgia, which started production in 2004.
The firm declined to put a figure on its capacity but says it has announced expansion for early summer and is planning to add further capacity next year.
Plant sterols derived from wood products have an advantage in the European market over soya-based sterols, much of which are made from derivatives of GM soy.
However Manuel Canales, vice president and general manager of Arboris, told NutraIngredients.com that these advantages may not continue in the long-term.
"The GM issue is not necessarily a permanent one. We are currently seeing interest for non-GM products from both Europe and the US but we see this as a short-term advantage," he said.
However the firm's back integration into its paper chemicals parent company will give it a long-term stable supply of raw material, allowing it to offer highly cost-effective products.
"The market needs an assured supply in order to grow. The key thing is the long-term availability of raw material. We believe we are the only company with a business model that allows us to offer a stable, long-term, fixed cost ingredient," he said.
"The raw material arrives on our doorstep when we need it. Then our parent company takes back what we don't use. Our competitors have to find markets for the extracted material," he added.
The firm also benefits from shared logistic and infrastructure costs.
However Arboris is also looking at technology to combine sterols with other materials that would enhance their efficacy.
"We don't know whether other products will come onto the market or another issue like the GM one can come up. So we are taking a careful approach to the market," he added.