Researchers at a US government-backed laboratory have obtained a patent (US 6,855,526, B2) on a 'biobased' method that involves feeding high-fructose corn syrup to the bacterial species Lactobacillus intermedius, which in turn produces mannitol.
The food industry traditionally produces mannitol by subjecting a 50-50 mixture of fructose and glucose to a nickel catalyst and high-pressure hydrogenation: only 25 per cent of the sugars are converted.
By comparison, and hinting at lower costs for the food maker, the US scientists claim their method is a more efficient method because it transforms some 72 per cent of the sugars into mannitol
Essentially their technique uses the Lactobacillus intermedius NRR B-3693 bacterium strain to grow a broth of high-fructose syrup in a fermentation flask.
The broth is then refrigerated and the "leftovers" (white, needle-like crystals of mannitol) removed.
The fresh patent is pitched to slice straight into the growing market for polyols (sugar alcohols), to which mannitol belongs.
A nutritive sweetener, the billion euro market for polyols is growing at just under three per cent.
But further growth is expected for these sugar replacers, as health concerns continue to push up overall demand for sweeteners in sugar-free and low-calorie food products.
Market observers maintain that the higher prices of polyols in comparison to sugar will hold back demand for the product both at an EU and world level.
In Europe a handful of polyols - sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, maltitiol and isomalt - have been approved by the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) for use in foodstuffs and fall under the 'additives' label.
Moving to scale up their findings to food production level, since 2002 the ARS laboratory behind the enzyme fermentation method has linked up with US firm zuChem.
At the end of last year zuChem successfully petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to approve the mannitol production by this new microbial fermentation method.
David Demirjian, the president of zuChem, is upbeat about demand for mannitol, claiming the market demand is growing, and estimating $100 million (€76 million) in annual sales worldwide for the reduced-calorie sweetener.