In the face of obesity, diabetes, and other health epidemics, food makers are looking for healthier ingredients that won’t require consumers to compromise on taste.
Excessive sugar consumption is a pervasive health problem throughout the world. It leads to many life-threatening conditions including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, which has now reached epidemic levels in some parts of the world.
Nearly 40% of American adults are obese, according to CDC data, putting them at risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, while over 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.
How did we get to this staggering, epidemic level of obesity and diabetes?
On average, Americans consume 126.4 grams of sugar per day, out-consuming any other country in the world according to The Diabetes Council. Germany and the Netherlands trail behind at roughly 102 grams per person on average, followed by Ireland, Australia, and Belgium and roughly 95 grams per person on average.
Despite these health risks and growing public awareness about overconsumption, many consumers can’t seem to swap out their favorite sugary snacks or drinks with healthier alternatives, driving many food product companies to look for solutions that cut caloric impact without sacrificing flavor.
Sugar is typically highly-refined and stripped of beneficial antioxidants and minerals, leaving it with a high glycemic index. Despite these downsides, food manufacturers have found it difficult to replace refined sugar with alternatives that pose fewer problems or that have lower caloric impacts. The natural sugar alternatives and replacements that are available can be expensive and may not mix well with existing product formulations.
Singapore’s Nutrition Innovation Raises $5m
Singapore startup Nutrition Innovation is hoping to tap what they estimate to be a $100 billion sugar market with a low-glycemic natural cane sugar product.
Nutrition Innovation’s patent-protected process retains the antioxidants and minerals that are naturally occurring in cane sugar, such as magnesium and calcium in a patented process that the company says produces Nucane as a fraction of the cost of refined sugar.
This week the startup raised a $5 million seed round with Singaporean food and ag investor VisVires New Protein and global trading house Enerfo Group. The company will use the funding to continue testing its product with food and beverage companies across Australia, Brazil, Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand.
“Nutrition Innovation presents an opportunity to overhaul the global sugar market with a healthier product” says Matthieu Vermersch, Founder and Managing Partner of VVNP. “Food ingredients, like sugar, are characterised by their specific functional properties, making them essential but extremely challenging to replace in food products. The value proposition of Nutrition Innovation is compelling not just for the sugar mills and refineries, but also for food manufacturers and consumers. Despite being less than two years old, the swift establishment of their global supply footprint is a true testament to the relevance of their technology and product.”
The company is also developing a pipeline of future products that feature its sugar reduction technology with additional health benefits and has already debuted one new product: Nucane Life. The technology enables the production of a functional natural sugar carbohydrate that can achieve sugar reduction of up to 70% while integrating a broad range of substrates like protein and fiber that confer additional health benefits, according to a press release.
List of Sugar Reduction Technologies
A number of startups or working to fill the sudden and increasing demand for healthier ingredient alternatives.
One of the biggest challenges to ingredient replacements is ensuring that the flavor profile or texture of the final product is in line with consumer expectations. Alternative sweeteners like stevia are a huge hit with health-conscious consumers, but they don’t always mix in well with existing product formulations.
This means that finding a solution isn’t just about flavor; it’s about ensuring that the consumer’s overall experience remains unscathed by the swap.
Stem (previously Cambridge Glycosciences) has created a biological process that extracts natural compounds from plants with chemical structures that are closest to natural sugar.
“It’s harder to replace sugar in solid food because sugar plays roles in texture; it browns; it caramelizes; it crystallizes,” company CEO Tom Simmons recently told Labiotech.eu. “You could add stevia to a cake mix and take out the sugar and it would in principle be sweet, but it wouldn’t actually taste like a cake because it would just lack all the texture.”
Stem is tackling the baking industry first. (Disclosure: Stem is an AgFunder portfolio company.)
California’s Miraculex is working with the brazzein protein, which is 2,000 times as sweet as sugar and comes from the African oubli plant.
Several Israeli innovators are also jumping to the challenge with Better Juice deriving a method for reducing sugars in orange juice by converting them into nondigestible forms, including dietary fibers such as fructooligosaccharide (FOS) and other nondigestible molecules without impacting the natural flavor of the beverage.
Better Juice uses non-GMO microorganism activity and continuous bioconversion to process large volumes of juice with little effect on overall costs, according to the company. Better Juice conducted several trials with different beverage companies and succeeded in reducing sugars in orange juice between 30% to 80%. The startup can now provide a proof of concept for orange juice, it told AgFunderNews.
HEYLO is combining acadia fiber and stevia in a precise ratio using a proprietary high-precision blending technique that delivers the taste and functionality that DIY attempts won’t achieve, according to Food Navigator.
DouxMatok is using silica to enhance people’s perception of sweetness, and Amai Proteins is developing sweet alternatives with formulas that are based on proteins found in various fruits. (Find more Israeli startups combatting the ails of sugar here.)
Other companies are working to reduce the bitterness of certain foods where sugar is heavily used to mask it. They include KukaXoco, working specifically with chocolate, and MycoTech, working specifically with coffee. Not startups but working on the same problem are listed ingredients company Sensient and life sciences business ChromoCell.
Other innovative ingredient technologies include Dutch biotech company Isobionics, which is innovating products for flavors and fragrances of orange, grapefruit, bergamot, and ginger, and Danish startup Biosyntia, which is working on a process to create vitamins through fermentation that can be used in flavors and feed additives to name a few other examples.
And biotech startups aren’t just focusing on sweets, either. Indianapolis-based startup Epogee is working on a way to reduce fat in products like chocolate, baked goods, peanut butter, and pasta. And Brightseed (*another AgFunder portfolio company*) is discovering bioactive compounds in crops that can help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes.