This follows the approval in November 2011 of a health claim about the ability of beta-glucan from oats to drive down cholesterol under Article 14 of the EU health and nutrition claims regulation.
Meanwhile, at the end of 2011, Cargill and Slovenian ingredients producer Valens won positive Article 14 opinions from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for barley-derived ingredients with their Barliv and Reduchol products respectively. This paves the way for full approval, probably within the year.
Foods containing beta-glucan could already claim a role in maintaining healthy blood cholesterol under Article 13, but the Article 14 claim enables processors to talk about cholesterol reduction. For example, the EFSA opinion on the Valens claim proposes the wording: 'Barley beta-glucans have been shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease'.
Based on available evidence, EFSA has concluded that people need to consume at least 3g per day of beta-glucan from oats or barley to enjoy the beneficial effect, with foods that provide at least 1g per portion qualifying for the health claim. But this is where it becomes tricky for consumers looking to conventional oat- or barley-based products to help stave off cardiovascular disease.
"You'd have to have an oat drink, two slices of bread and a bowl of porridge to get your 3g, which is a big ask," says Diana Cowland, industry analyst for health and wellness at Euromonitor International. For example, Quaker Oats' Oats so Simple, Hovis's Hearty Oats loaf and Oatly's Healthy Oats drink each contain 1g of beta-glucan per serving.
"Adding all three would be quite a change to your diet and that's where the struggle lies for beta-glucan in the market," says Cowland. She contrasts this with plant sterols, where the recommended intake is 2g. This equates to a single shot of a Benecol yogurt drink or 25g of spread.
Mayur Ranchordas, senior lecturer in performance nutrition at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees that the 3g threshold could be a problem. "Consumers have got the concept that you should eat whole grains, but three or four portions provides a lot of carbohydrates. One reason for our growing problem with obesity is increased carbohydrate intake, so it's a difficult one. If you're not doing 30 or 40 minutes of exercise per day you could be creating another problem. That's why a lot of companies are now starting to fortify, and people should also consider taking beta-glucan as a supplement."
Functional foods derived from healthy grains have massive potential, according to Euromonitor. In 2010, global sales of packaged foods billed as naturally healthy and high-fibre were more than US$38bn (£24bn), with $33.3bn (£21bn) of that in bakery products such as wholemeal bread. In the same year, sales of fortified functional foods were $190bn (£119.8bn), with bakery products accounting for $28.5 bn (£18bn).
With barley-derived beta-glucan yet to make much impact, the two biggest players in oat-based beta-glucan fortification are Switzerland's CreaNutrition with its Oatwell range and Swedish company Biovelop with PromOat products.
Oatwell is based on oat bran that offers three different concentrations of beta-glucan: 14%, 22% and 28%. "Fortification with Oatwell makes it much easier for manufacturers to provide at least 3g in a portion, which is a huge advantage," says Adrian Meyer, sales and marketing director. "It can be used in a wide range of applications, including ready to eat cereals, bread, biscuits, rusks, meal replacers and drinks.
"The most challenging area for Oatwell is liquid applications because of the viscosity of beta-glucan. We can get around this issue but thicker products like smoothies make more sense than aiming for a soft drink."
PromOat is made using a patented process that splits the grain into different fractions. The result is 35% beta-glucan with the rest of the product primarily maltodextrin. Unlike bran-based ingredients, there's almost no oat protein or insoluble fibre in the final product.
"We see wet applications as a big area," explains David Peters, sales and marketing director of Biovelop. "In some products like cereals or bakery you might be looking for the characteristics of oats but PromOat is more anonymous. It doesn't have the taste, colour or fibrous nature that other oat products have."
The first products to be co-branded as fortified with PromOat, OatWorks smoothies, were set to hit the US at the end of March, with a European launch expected in 2013. Closer to home, Finnish company Bioferme has launched Yosa, an oat-based yogurt that is topped up with PromOat to reach the 1g EFSA requires.
PromOat's technical characteristics can play an important role in such wet applications, where it can be used to create a thicker consistency in low-fat products. Biovelop has also patented PromOat as an emulsifier. "The beauty of PromOat is that it can be a health ingredient or a technical ingredient," says Peters.
Although demand has been building for beta-glucan, recent regulatory developments should accelerate development work. "This is really all about harmonisation within the 27 EU Member States," says Meyer. "Companies could use Oatwell and make claims before where they had local approval, but they can now market beta-glucan-containing products the same everywhere."
He adds that successful ingredients such as beta-glucan will get an extra boost when the list of products that failed to get their Article 13 claims past EU regulators is published. "Article 13 results will be published later this year and that will rationalise the range of ingredients in the functional foods market in Europe."
On the other hand, relatively established players such as CreaNutrition and Biovelop can expect more competition from rivals looking to sell functional solutions based on beta-glucan. Claims approved under Article 14 can be used by anyone with equivalent ingredients, at least in theory.
But Meyer argues any beta-glucan-based company will have to come armed with its own scientific know-how. "You also have to consider Article 5: you are responsible for ensuring the beta-glucan is bioactive." In other words, ingredient suppliers and food processors making claims must ensure the active ingredient in a particular food matrix is available to be used by the body. "This is a limitation if a supplier doesn't have its own evidence," he says.
Looking further ahead, Biovelop aims to use the same fractionation technique used to make PromOat to explore new healthy ingredients from other grains, says Peters.
"Arabinoxylans in wheat and rye have similar benefits to beta-glucans in terms of improving the condition of the digestive system and there is also an antioxidant effect. Research into this area has not been as extensive as that for beta-glucans due to the lack of commercially-available sources, but we are working on a number of research projects and look forward to bringing these ingredients to market in the future."