The proprietary process licensed from Purdue Research Foundation, could help the US manufacturer capitalise on growing demand for sweeteners.
Xylitol is a white crystalline substance that looks and tastes like sugar and is found as an ingredient in anti-cavity chewing gum.
It is best known for its ability to fight cavities, but DFI also claims that it has been shown to produce an increase in calcium absorption and bone strength, to be safe for consumption by diabetics and to have half the calories of sugar.
A Purdue University research team led by James N. BeMiller, professor emeritus in Purdue's Department of Food Science and then director of Purdue's Whistler Centre for Carbohydrate Research, discovered in 2004 that electrolytic technology could be used to replace the current xylitol production process, which is expensive and requires harsh chemicals.
The result is a process that requires air, hydrogen and electricity but only has baking soda as a substantial by-product.
DFI has attained an exclusive worldwide license for this proprietary technology from Purdue Research Foundation and has invested significantly in the optimisation of the technology. DFI is now in the process of patenting several related technical advances.
BeMiller acts as the company's technology adviser.
"Electrolytic technology is novel in the food industry," said DFI chief technology officer Jonathan Stapley.
"It's a clean technology that efficiently and quantitatively converts starch into xylitol without the use of rare materials and with few waste by-products."
Stapley said the technology lowers the current expense of manufacturing xylitol by a disruptive amount and, as conversion efficiencies are high, DFI's manufacturing technology can accommodate production rates far exceeding that of previous processes.
"In today's health conscious world, substitutes for sugar are in high demand," said Joseph B. Hornett, senior vice president, treasurer and COO of the Purdue Research Foundation. "It's important that this sweetener be made more readily available at a price that will allow it to be used in all existing food product lines."
Unlike many artificial sweeteners, xylitol can be used in applications that require high temperature, such as baking and pasteurisation. This, claims Hornett, coupled with sweetness that is the same as table sugar, teaspoon for teaspoon, results in the easy replacement of table sugar with xylitol in most food applications.
The ingredient has also received academic backing within Europe. Last year the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network, which provides healthcare guidelines, included xylitol in recommendations encouraging consumers to look after their teeth.
The network said that consumers should use non-sugar sweeteners, in particular xylitol, in food and drink, and should be encouraged to use sugar-free chewing gum, "particularly containing xylitol, when this is acceptable."
Xylitol belongs to the polyol family of sugar alcohols and is a naturally occurring 5-carbon polyol sweetener found in a host of fruits and vegetables. As sweet as sucrose, xylitol is the sweetest of all the polyols, but is said to have no after-taste and is safe for diabetics.
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.
The billion-euro market for polyols is growing at just under three per cent, compared to over 8 per cent for high intensity sweeteners. But dental benefits could open up new sales growth areas for this polyol sugar replacer.