The French starch derivatives group opened its first Asian applications lab in Shanghai one year ago, and says the facility is constantly fully booked.
"Chinese companies are trying to synthesise a version of imported products with their own ideas, for example, using tea extracts. But you can't just adapt a formulation that works in the US," explains Francois Delbaere, the group's technical support manager for Asia.
"The gum texture here is softer, the stability needs for this climate are higher, and demands for sweetness are also different," he told AP-Foodtechnology.com at a meeting in Shanghai.
The biggest supplier of polyols, or sugar alcohols, in Asia, Roquette is well geared up to follow growth of the sugar-free market in China. Some polyols like maltitol can replace sugar in a food without the need for additional high intensity sweeteners, making it a popular substitute in confectionery applications that need to carry a 'sugar-free' claim.
Last week Roquette launched a Chinese version website explaining the properties and uses of the starch sweetener for potential customers.
"Health foods are growing very fast in China," explained Marc Dilly, commercial director for the North Asia region.
"In 2001, only 4 per cent of chewing gum in China was sugar-free. Now it is around 35 per cent and Roquette forecasts that this will increase to 50 per cent in the next couple of years," he said.
The growth is also evident in the rise from four makers of sugar-free gum in China in 2001 to around 40 currently.
The Chinese are naturally health-conscious but several manufacturers of sugar-free gum use dental claims to win sales.
Roquette says it has the capacity to respond to the rapidly growing demand for non-cariogenic sweeteners being created by these firms.
"Our customers are growing quickly. They need suppliers that can feed this demand and offer the required quantity," says Dilly.
After gaining its first production site in the country with the acquisition of a sorbitol plant from Korea's LG group in 2001, Roquette built the biggest polyols production plant in the region in Lianyungang, on the edge of China's corn belt. Production started in 2004.
"The idea is to be both near our raw materials and the customers. The plant is in the port city of Lianyungang so we can easily ship to Japan, Korea and other parts of China," said Dilly.
Asia is currently less than 10 per cent of the group's sales but with double-digit growth year-on-year, it is key to the long-term strategy.
"We are just at the beginning of industrial history here so we are taking it step by step. But we have clear ambitions to grow," said Dilly.
Although Roquette only offers its specialty products like polyols, food modified starches, fibres and proteins in Asia, Dilly says producing classic sweeteners such as dextrose and HFCS in China in the future cannot be ruled out.
It is also anticipating rising Chinese demand for fibres - already a huge market in Japan -as the population becomes more prone to obesity, in addition to higher demand for starches as processing aids driven by an increasingly sophisticated processed food industry.
This makes the applications lab key to ongoing development for local products.
"We started out in Asia with our normal ingredients range but then we had to adapt them," explained Delbaere.
Chinese consumers prefer runnier yoghurts than Europeans and therefore need different starches to create the right texture while in sauces, the Chinese like the 'slimy' texture that European firms have long been fighting to avoid.
"The future will bring an evolution towards Western-style products but always retain the Chinese heritage," predicted Dilly.