October 13, 2017
By Jamie FORTESCUE, Secretary General of Starch Europe
For the European starch industry, October 1, 2017 not only marked the end of the EU sugar quota system, it represented the beginning of a new world order in how the starch industry is perceived and how it positions itself to the world.
With the end of the EU sugar regime and the demise of the quota system – a turning point in the history of the EU agricultural policy – the starch industry is now in a position to produce as much isoglucose as the market demands. Previously, annual production of the starch-based sugar, isoglucose, was capped at around 720,000 tonnes, a very small fraction of the 13.5 million tonnes allowed for producers of beet-based sucrose. This cap no longer exists. Estimates for future production range between two to three million tonnes annually. However, this potential will be fully realised only over time and will largely depend on customer demand.
But with opportunity comes challenge. Although the liberalisation of isoglucose production will see an increased uptake of this starch-based ingredient to be added to a host of products, the lack of consumer understanding of starch and isoglucose could raise questions around issues such as health benefits and production processes.
Any forecast on increased production and consumption will be subject to a number of factors:
First of all, stakeholders should not conclude that the anticipated increase in isoglucose production and demand in Europe will directly translate into increased sugar consumption. Rather, we expect to see isoglucose replacing sucrose (table sugar) across a variety of products. We also expect to see an increase in the European sucrose production, replacing imported sucrose to meet domestic demand and being increasingly exported.
Secondly, consumer demand today is increasingly contingent upon factors that extend beyond quality or price of a product. More and more, consumers are concerned about issues such as supply chain sustainability, health and wellness, and corporate reputation. Their expectations in these areas are progressively influencing buying decisions, and shaping demand for goods and services. Removing the quota system is likely to increase the exposure of producers to new levels of consumer scrutiny.
As consumers seek to learn more about what they eat, so too are they turning to digital and social media for answers. The online world offers consumers a wealth of information and misinformation. As demand for greater transparency and traceability rises, industries – including ours – need to be well-equipped to respond.
Operating in this new context represents a revolution for the starch industry. For decades, we’ve focused largely on sourcing and providing ingredients to manufacturers and retailers without direct exposure to consumers. Few outside of our industry know about us or cared to know about us. As demand increases and as the number of starch-based products expands, our industry will no longer be able to fly under the radar of public opinion.
Today, we produce over six hundred products, from native starches to physically or chemically modified starches, through to liquid and solid sweeteners, proteins, fibres, and lipids. There is a whole world of ingredients our industry provides to European food and drink manufacturers. The versatility of starch products is such that they are used as ingredients and functional supplements in a vast array of food, non-food and feed applications.
Isoglucose is just one of them, and it may be the subject of a range of questions. In fact, “isoglucose” is the term used in EU legislation to define a kind of liquid sugar made from wheat or maize starch. On product packs it is labelled as either Glucose-Fructose Syrup (GFS), if its fructose content is less than 50%, or Fructose-Glucose Syrup (FGS), if its fructose content exceeds 50%.
Consumers know very little about isoglucose and the world of starch. This lack of knowledge combined with the growing levels of misinformation online and changing information consumption behaviours and expectations – particularly with respect to who we trust – increases the risk of misunderstanding and confusion. Our online Q&A platform has been the first step in seeking to address public concerns. The next one will be a conference that will take place on 17 October in Brussels.
In a free market, the exchange of information is what determines supply and demand. The European starch industry must quickly learn to communicate and interact with a much broader audience that now includes consumers. And we must do this by listening to their needs and providing them with the information they are looking for, particularly online.