MINNEAPOLIS -- Terri VanderPol was tinkering in the lab again. Earlier this month, the Cargill senior beverage scientist was figuring out ways to improve the taste of a pomegranate-acai berry juice drink containing Barliv, a concoction Cargill developed that marks a sort of eureka moment in food technology.
It's an additive derived from barley, one of only a handful of grains rich in the kind of fiber that helps heart health. But barley isn't easily transformed into a concentrate that can go into food or beverages without mucking up taste and texture.
Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill's food scientists figured out a way to do it. And they are using the same kind of thinking to develop a range of "functional" or healthful additives that manufacturers could mix into everything from fruit juice to snack bars.
It's a potentially huge opportunity for Cargill, one of the world's largest food-ingredient makers. But it can take years and lots of money to develop the products, sometimes with little assurance manufacturers will adopt them.
Additives like Barliv are niche, almost customized products, not commodities that food manufacturers must have. For instance, Cargill's ingredients division also sells malt, something brewers can't do without. Food- and drinkmakers don't necessarily need Barliv, and it adds cost to their products.
"Some of these products don't make it because they are just too expensive to add," said Rebecca Wright, editor of Nutraceuticals World magazine, which covers functional foods and dietary supplements.
Yet consumer demand is increasingly forcing foodmakers to improve the healthiness of their offerings, bolstering the potential market for functional ingredients like Barliv. "If we were to look at the top three or four food trends in the world, health and wellness would be one of them," said Kerr Dow, vice president of global technology for Cargill's ingredients division.
The global additives and ingredients business is fragmented, with lots of companies specializing in niches. But Cargill, one of the world's largest privately held companies, is known for the diversity of its ingredients portfolio: It includes cocoa and chocolate, vegetable oils, sweeteners and all sorts of obscure yet essential stuff -- think of the emulsifier lecithin -- that improves the texture or flavor of food.
Barley, like oats, is a source of beta-glucan fiber, which has been scientifically proven to lower cholesterol. It's the beta-glucans in oatmeal that make it a heart-healthy product. The problem for food technologists is creating a beta-glucan additive that doesn't impart the lumpiness of oatmeal -- or a cardboard-like texture -- to a beverage or food product.
Cargill scientists solved the problem by tinkering with barley on a molecular level, VanderPol said. Barliv was then unveiled as a brand in 2008, complete with a health claim sanctioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: 3 daily grams of beta-glucan fiber from barley may reduce heart disease risk, in conjunction with a sound diet.
Such government-approved claims are hard to come by.
In 2009, the first commercial product containing Barliv hit store shelves, a "pear-merlot" juice from Bolthouse Farms, a California-based purveyor of natural juices and fresh carrots. But it's not clear how well the Barliv juice has done; Bolthouse Farms didn't return calls for comment. And since the juice came out, Barliv-related products have been scarce.
"It's not a widespread ingredient in stores just yet, but our intent is that it will be," said Pam Stauffer, manager for health and nutrition in Cargill's ingredients group. "We hope that in the next two years it will really take off."
It's not uncommon for a couple of years to pass before a new ingredient gets traction, as food manufacturers test it out. But what makes for a big hit is tough to predict.
Take, for example, a functional ingredient called "plant sterols," a derivative of soybean processing.
Cargill's brand of plant sterols is called Corowise, and like Barliv, it's got the blessing of the FDA: Foods containing a certain amount of plant sterols, combined with a good diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Corowise was introduced in 2003, but after seven years is available in only 12 products, including orange juice, milk, cheese and pasta.
Plant sterols, while they were one of the first functional ingredients, haven't broadly clicked with consumers, despite sound science behind the additive, analysts say.
"In the mind share of consumers, plant sterols fall behind," said Christopher Shanahan, a food and beverage industry analyst with market researcher Frost & Sullivan.
It's the sort of ingredient familiar to consumers who are particularly educated in more healthful food, but not to the average consumer, Shanahan said. So plant sterols haven't gotten critical mass as an ingredient.
Omega-3 fatty acids offer an opposite tale. The science is also solid behind them -- at the least, they're good for heart health -- but consumer awareness is high, courtesy of loads of media coverage, said Wright of Nutraceuticals World.
Cargill has taken notice. Last summer, the company launched its first omega-3-enhanced product, a version of its Clear Valley brand of canola oil.
An omega-3 shortening came out just last fall. Clear Valley's differentiator is that its omega-3s come from flaxseed, not the more common source of fish oil.
Flaxseed oil is more stable than fish oil, so it takes longer to break down and go bad, said Willie Loh, Cargill's marketing vice president for oils and shortenings.
That means flaxseed oil allows for longer shelf life -- the 9 to 12 months needed for cookies, crackers, mayonnaise and other so-called "center of the store" grocery products.
With flaxseed oil, "we can literally put omega-3 into everything," Loh said. And if food manufacturers buy into Clear Valley, no doubt Cargill will.