Set amid acres of farmland in France's Nord Pas-de-Calais region, Roquette's gargantuan starch processing facility in Lestrem dominates the local landscape to such an extent that it has even diverted a river in order to expand its industrial empire.
But if size matters - and in starch production it certainly helps - it is innovation, rather than sheer scale, that will give the family-owned French ingredients giant the edge over the competition, insist bosses at the company's headquarters and R&D hub, also at Lestrem.
With the price of some of its raw materials going through the roof as crops are diverted into biofuel production and demand from China and India continues to rise, the commercial imperative to extract higher-value speciality ingredients from peas, potatoes, wheat and maize has never been greater.
"We are in a better position than some of our competitors in that we are more integrated upstream," says Jean-Luc Defour, development director of Roquette's nutrition business unit. "We are also better at extracting the full value out of all of the components of some of our raw materials; we are experts in fibre, starch and protein.
"Innovation is absolutely critical to this business, and we have invested a lot of time and money into supporting our products and protecting our intellectual property through patents. Nutrition is a matter of credibility," he says.
As a privately owned business, Roquette is not obliged to divulge its profit and loss figures, and remains tight-lipped over future plans. However, Defour reveals that turnover is growing steadily year-on-year in the low single digits, while "reasonable" profitability ensures there is enough money to invest 3% of turnover in research and development - a higher percentage than Nestlé and Unilever devote to R&D.
With the pressure on to find new and unusual applications for polyols, starches, proteins and fibres, Roquette has staffed its laboratories in the US, China and Europe with a diverse range of biologists, toxicologists, microbiologists, geneticists, biochemists, nutrition researchers, applications and formulations chemists in order to stay ahead of the game. A whopping 400 of these are based at Lestrem.
something new to offer
G. Ribadeau Dumas, food and pharma applications division manager at Roquette, says customers are becoming increasingly demanding. "Innovation days, for example, where customers invite suppliers in to pitch new concepts or innovative applications, are now the norm, whereas a couple of years ago, they were pretty rare. You have to have something new to offer all of the time."
Extensive pilot facilities at Lestrem enable applications specialists to replicate conditions in a range of sectors from bread manufacture to marshmallow, chocolate, biscuit, jam and ice cream production. The company also boasts a chewing gum production unit capable of producing 500-600kg of gum an hour, says Dumas. "The sheer scale of this means that results we get here will translate in a very meaningful way into our customers' factories."
While the current focus is on pea protein, pea starch and pea fibre also have a myriad of potential applications, particularly in confectionery, says Dumas. Using pea starch in fruit gums, for example, can reduce the time the gums have to be left to allow water to evaporate after cooking from 24 hours to less than 12 hours. It is also possible to create some highly unusual metallic or jet black coatings for chewing gum pellets and other confectionery products by using pea starch, says Dumas.
Specialist equipment also enables gum manufacturers to experiment with adding moisture- or temperature-sensitive bioactive ingredients, such as probiotics or vitamins, to dry powder-based tableted chewing gums, he says.
Longer term, Roquette will look beyond its traditional stable of raw ingredients (maize, peas, wheat and potatoes) for new opportunities in other areas of the nutritional ingredients market, says Dufour.
One recent example is German microalgae firm Bioprodukte Prof. Steinberg Produktions und Vertriebs, in which Roquette recently took a stake. This produces chlorella vulgaris microalgae, which contain proteins, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids, says Dufour.
In the meantime, Roquette is quietly confident that its Maltisorb branded maltitol, Nutriose branded soluble fibre and Nutralys branded pea protein can boost group margins and deliver sturdy organic growth.
Nutralys, which Roquette produces from yellow peas at a new dedicated plant at Vic Sur Aisne in Picardy, is a particularly fertile area of opportunity given that animal protein is becoming increasingly expensive and environmentally costly, says Dufour. It also has an edge over other vegetable proteins such as potato, rice or soy, he says.
"A lot of soy is now genetically modified, and it's also an allergen. But there are also factors that have a bearing, such as water use and yield, the destruction of the rainforests and so on. Pea protein has a great amino acid profile and it works well in combination with other proteins. It's also very flexible. You can add it to soups and pasta, bars and meal replacement products for protein enrichment, and also to sausages and meat products to limit water loss, improve texture and reduce fat."
Consumer attitudes to proteins are also changing, says Bruno Gehin, senior market development manager in the nutrition business unit. "Back in 2002, virtually no mainstream foods or drinks talked about proteins on the front of pack; in the last four or five years, that's changed dramatically as consumers see it as something beneficial."
Unlike its rivals, Roquette also has the expertise to utilise more of the pea's other components, news of which will be revealed early next year, he promises.
standing out in the crowd
Setting up dedicated facilities to extract top quality protein from peas doesn't come cheap, however, and achieving a decent return on Roquette's "significant investment" in this area will only come from developing products with global potential, says Dufour. "We're not restricting ourselves to Europe."
Competition is also hotting up in the market for soluble fibres. However, with a clutch of leading ingredients suppliers now operating in this space, it is hard to stand out, says Valerie le Bihan-Millot, marketing manager in the nutrition business unit.
"The difference between Nutriose and something like inulin is that digestive tolerance is much higher, so you can introduce it at a much higher level. It's also more gradually broken down in the large intestine than some other products in this market, which is a plus. It's also more flexible in the food manufacturing environment as it is more heat stable and resistant to acidity."
As for polyols, growth prospects are positive, given the growing interest in sugar replacement as obesity levels spiral out of control, says business development manager Philippe Caillat.
"The general food market is only growing at around 2%, and polyols are growing in the double digits in some areas such as no- added-sugar chocolate."
Sensory tests comparing confectionery, biscuits, gums, pastries, jams, ketchup, fondants and ice cream made with maltitol with products containing sugar are encouraging, he says.
Research into the preferred polyol for chewing gum coatings (xylitol, isomalt or maltitol) also revealed maltitol to be by far the most popular among consumers owing to its superior flavour release and crunchiness, he says.
However, the pièce de résistance in terms of proving the credentials of maltitol as a serious contender in the sugar replacement market came last year. Master chocolatier Olivier Simon from Lille-based artisan chocolate maker Meert was so impressed with Maltisorb, he used it to replace sugar for his complete range of luxury chocolates at last year's chocolate exhibition in Paris, says Dumas.
"If you can impress someone like that, you know you've got a good product."