Research Through Partnership

by Teresa Acklin
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Cerestar forms strategic alliances to advance development of new food and non-food products from agricultural raw materials.

By Diane Montague, European correspondent

   Production of vitamin C will be less complex in the future as a result of a new production process developed by the European starch producer Cerestar. Cerestar has used its expertise in fermentation technology to cut out several stages of vitamin C production, traditionally a long and complex process. Effectively, the new technology means turning the basic ingredient sorbitol into ketogulonic acid (K.G.A.) in one process — the last phase before vitamin C itself.

   The development has been brought about under Cerestar's new policy of research through partnership. Traditionally a supplier of sorbitol for vitamin C production to the pharmaceutical industry, Cerestar's research work showed that the manufacturing process could be simplified using advanced fermentation technology.

   Cerestar decided to approach Merck and B.A.S.F., two of the world's leading producers of vitamin C, to invite them to set up a jointly funded research program. The result is that instead of supplying sorbitol, Cerestar will be supplying B.A.S.F. and Merck with K.G.A. production in a joint venture facility now being installed at Cerestar's starch plant in Krefeldt, Germany. The K.G.A. will then be transformed into vitamin C separately by the two producers.

   “We are very proud of this development,” says Silvio Kluzer, Cerestar's president. “It is an important result of our philosophy of research through partnership. We felt there could be a better way to produce vitamin C, but we needed to understand the final stages of vitamin C technology so we suggested the joint venture.”

   The strategy of research through partnership is a key element in Cerestar's research and development program, which is now coordinated at the company's research center at Vilvoorde near Brussels, Belgium.

   Cerestar is the starch processing division of Eridania Beghin-Say, one of the world's leading processors of agricultural raw materials. With more than 140 plants throughout the world, E.B.S. also operates in sugar beet processing, oilseed crushing and refining, animal feeds and consumer products.

   The research center at Vilvoorde was originally for starch only, having been established as one of the glucose manufacturing sites of C.P.C. International, whose acquisition in 1987 formed the basis of the present starch division of E.B.S.

   The business was based on the potential of “green chemistry” within the European Community. At a time when the problem of agricultural surpluses was beginning to arise, the group argued that rather than leave the land idle in set-aside, it made more economic sense to use a highly valuable resource not just for food production, but also as a source of renewable raw materials for industry and energy.

   This strategy had the advantage of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and minerals and being more environmentally friendly. At the same time, Cerestar's research indicated considerable potential in developing novel and exciting products from agricultural raw materials. In particular, this potential included the adaptability of starch molecules and products derived from new techniques in oilseed processing.

   In moving forward with these ideas, E.B.S. built a research program that stretches from plant breeding and biotechnology through human and animal nutrition to the nuts and bolts of process plants and product application.

   With the company's wide range of expertise in the processing of agricultural crops, it was decided four years ago that the essential part of group research work should be brought together on one site. A substantial investment program was approved that expanded the facilities on the site to provide 5,000 square meters of laboratories and 4,000 square meters of pilot plants. The aim was to create synergy by capitalizing on shared know-how between the divisions.

   Now, all research work for the group is coordinated at Vilvoorde, which also provides central services and administration, while specialist production technology is carried out at 16 regional research centers with specific expertise in the processing of different products.

   The core of the E.B.S. business strategy is to maximize the potential of agricultural products as raw materials for food and non-food industries. The group processes 17 million tonnes of sugar beet, 16 million tonnes of oilseeds and 4.5 million tonnes of maize and wheat a year. E.B.S. management believes long term success lies in finding new ways of utilizing and adding value to the mainstream products of sugar, starches and oils and to the co- and by-products. Co-and by-products amount to 7 million tonnes each of oil meals and beet pulp, 1.9 million tonnes of gluten and 650,000 tonnes of molasses.

   Cerestar, which accounts for 85% of the work at Vilvoorde, allocates nearly 2% of its turnover of FFr. 11,000 million (U.S.$1.8 billion) to research and development — one of the highest levels in the industry, according to Mr. Kluzer.

   Practical results from the exchange of technical know-how between the divisions already are being realized. These include the isolation of a new vegetable protein from sunflowers using starch technology, a hydrolized wheat protein for calf feeds and a starch/soya combination to improve the texture of meat products. Other developments in the pipeline include a novel semi-dry beet pulp/molasses compound for animal feed, a technique for using converted beet pulp for paper production and starch/lecithin combinations for improved product properties.

      An Alternate Sweetener

   One of the most important early developments now reaching full-scale commercialization is the product erythritol, which was originally intended to be an alternative sweetener to the polyols. Erythritol is produced through a process of alcoholic fermentation.

   During its development, Cerestar's scientists discovered that it had very good properties as a sweetener, but because of its molecular structure, erythritol was not absorbed by the body. As such it has no calorific effect and is also “tooth friendly.”

   Erythritol is one of the first developments in the area of enhanced and functional foods that are seen as offering an exciting future for Cerestar technology. The properties of starch, lipids and lecithin from the oil processing divisions are providing new ways of helping to counteract the effects of the diseases of modern civilization such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

   Current projects include the development of resistant starch that can act in the same way as fiber, saccharides that can improve the flora balance of the intestines and ways of improving the absorption of calcium through the formulation of vitamin C. Enzymes are being developed as a source of probiotics, which can help improve the balance of bacteria in the stomach and stimulate the immune system.

   Nutritional research is already being carried out with hospitals to test the effectiveness of these products. The challenge is to make the functional foods as palatable as their “unhealthy” counterparts so that ice cream, cakes, sweets and mayonnaise will soon be as beneficial as a bowl of bran flakes. Much of this work involves finding ways of optimizing levels of glucose and its derivatives to replace sugar without changing the taste or “mouthfeel.”

   To achieve the same end result, changes often have to be made in the way ingredients are used and in the manufacturing processes of end products. One of the problems in using glucose instead of sugar, for instance, is that of crystallization. The whole area of production technology research is covered by an extensive range of pilot plants that can be used to simulate production units in customers' own factories and to develop new production methods.

   Palatability and texture account for an important area of development work at Vilvoorde. Alongside the research into developing new products and their specific manufacturing and storage requirements is work on its acceptability to consumers. In addition to using panels of human tasters, products are evaluated mechanically for taste and texture characteristics. One of the latest additions to the laboratory equipment is an electronic nose that analyzes the chemical constituents of product smells.

   On the non-food side is the development of a new process to speed up the chemical reactions in starch to produce dextrins more inexpensively and efficiently. These new refined starches have a higher viscosity, which makes them particularly valuable for high quality paper coatings as a replacement for latex. Cerestar has recently invested U.S.$29.7 million in specialty production lines at existing plants to process these new materials.

   Another product in the non-food sector now in commercial use is a starch-based material to replace phosphates in detergents. With a high level of biodegradability, this material is very much part of Cerestar's philosophy of “green chemistry.”

   The use of chromatography to separate glucose and fructose is a breakthrough, as is the development of a process of continuous crystallization based on water evaporation.

   An important aspect of Cerestar's production technology research is concerned with environmental aspects. Cerestar has a strong commitment to developing processes that reduce environmental damage. The various stages of starch production and the production of starchy products involve the use of steeping, spray drying, crystallization and fermentation. Traditionally, these processes have required huge amounts of water, but Cerestar has developed a process using chemicals to break down the starch granules, which has reduced water requirements by 80%.

      Opportunity Knocks

   It was the combination of product and production research that led to the development of erythritol. With a huge potential in the food and confectionery industries, erythritol has opened up new opportunities for Cerestar in Japan, the first country to clear it for food use.

   Development of the Japanese market will be through a new company set up to market erythritol and other products. Already, sales contracts have been signed with some leading users of sweeteners. Japan is being supplied from a new manufacturing plant in Italy.

   The next market expected to develop erythritol is the United States, where approval by the Food and Drug Administration was given in March 1996. The American market will initially be supplied from Europe, but as demand increases, a production plant will be built by Cerestar U.S.A., the former American Maize Products business and part of Cerestar since 1995. Clearance for erythritol in Europe is expected within the next two to three years.

   Another important development in the Far East that will utilize Cerestar's expertise in both plant and product technology is a new maize starch plant in China that will operate as a joint venture with JIFA, China's leading starch producer. The plant, with a capacity of 300,000 tonnes of maize a year, is in the Jilin province in the northern part of China, one of the country's main maize producing regions. The plant is scheduled to be on stream by 2000.

   Also under discussion is a project in Thailand to produce food grade modified starch from tapioca. The starch would be added as a new production line to the existing plant operated as a joint venture with Cerestar.

   The potential market for erythritol in the United States highlights the importance of American Maize Products to the global expansion of Cerestar. Acquired in 1995, Cerestar was renamed Cerestar U.S.A in 1996. In terms of new products, Mr. Kluzer says there is considerable scope for increasing the range of starch-based products in the U.S. market and the proportion of high added value products.

   Fewer than 400 starch-based products are sold in the United States, compared with 2,000 in Europe. The very high proportion of isoglucose and glucose syrups widely used by the U.S. food and soft drink industries has meant that, until now, Cerestar U.S.A has been mainly a food-based company, and most of its resources have been concentrated in the food area. The aim now is to expand markets into non-food areas as well as developing more specialist markets for food products.

   The integrated research program coordinated from Vilvoorde is playing an important role in this development. While erythritol will be one of the first specialty products from the European research program to be marketed in the United States, the European side is benefiting from the addition of the cyclodextrins that were developed by the former American Maize research laboratories. The cyclodextrins contain molecules that encapsulate other molecules and have very exciting opportunities as slow release carriers for drugs and as a filter to remove cholesterol in high fat foods.

   It is these technical developments that are contributing to Cerestar management's optimism for the medium and long-term prospects for the American business despite the difficulties of the last 18 months. A combination of high maize prices in 1995 and the first half of 1996 coupled with overcapacity in the isoglucose industry hit margins badly in 1996 and cut sales volume by 9%.

   But Mr. Kluzer believes that the situation could improve over the coming year. With better crop prospects, maize prices have eased and, he says, the effects of the new U.S. farm act will begin to have a beneficial effect on crop production patterns. In addition, says Mr. Kluzer, the fact that there is no real overcapacity at the grinding level should mean that the fundamentals of this business should improve in the near future.

   “We think the environment is very positive for the starch industry in the U.S.,” he told World Grain. “ The U.S. market is growing by 4% to 5% a year just to keep pace with demand without the opportunities for new products. This compares with 2% to 3% in the E.U. Cerestar U.S.A. is the fifth largest starch producer in the U.S. and we intend to maintain that position.”