“We think it’s the holy grail of sugar replacement,” says Ziv Zwighaft of a white granular powder called allulose.
Allulose has about 70% the sweetness of sugar, but is very low in calories and has a negligible impact on blood sugar levels, an effect measured by the glycemic index.
It is found naturally in small quantities, for example in figs and raisins.
First approved for use in the United States more than a decade ago, the so-called “rare sugar” is produced commercially from fructose.
But, while it is widely considered an excellent sugar substitute in all respects – similar in both flavor and function – it is a niche because its production is expensive.
Bio Ambrosia, the startup Israeli doctor Zwighaft, has a dramatically cheaper to manufacture with a patented enzyme (produced by a genetically modified microorganism) and that uses sugar or high fructose corn syrup as raw material.
By partnering with sugar producers, Zwighaft hopes popularize allulose.
With the obesity and diabetes rates skyrocketingconsumers are looking for alternative sweeteners that are better and healthier than sugar.
A number of new food technology startups are trying to offer them to large food companies to incorporate into their products.
“The global sugar substitute industry is in a clear upward trajectory“says Gaurav Sahni, analyst at the innovation consultancy GreyB.
He adds that governments are contributing to this trend with measures including sugar taxes.
GreyB projects that the global sugar substitutes market, now worth about US$17 billion, will be worth more than US$28 billion within a decade.
There are already many replacements. There are older artificial sweeteners, such as aspartamethe saccharin and the sucralosecommonly used in diet drinks, and newer natural sweeteners, such as stevia and the monk’s fruit extracted from plants (the latter is not yet approved as a food in the United Kingdom or the European Union).
Many times sweeter than sugar, they only require small amounts.
There’s also polyols either sugar alcohols -he erythritolin particular, has gained traction in recent years.
Naturally occurring, but produced commercially from sugar and starch, they are not as sweet as sugar, but have the right volume for making baked goods and other processed foods.
However, the alternatives fall short, experts say. The aftertaste and mouthfeel they can be problematic.
Sugar also plays an important role in the texture, browning, and shelf life of foods, functions that alternatives they don’t always comply.
“Sugar does much more than sweeten,” says Mervyn de Souza, senior director at US biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks, which follows the sector.
There are also potential security riskswhich extend beyond the laxative effects that high polyol consumption can produce.
Erythritol has been linked to strokes and heart attacks (although others say that conclusion is premature).
Aspartame (also called aspartame) has been designated as “possibly carcinogenic” by cancer experts at the World Health Organization (WHO), although another WHO body stated that it is safe within current intake guidelines.
In May, the WHO made a general recommendation against the use of sweeteners without sugar for weight management, adding that they may also increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (he reviewed the evidence for many established products, including stevia, but did not consider monk fruit, erythritol, or allulose).
Startups see room for improvement.
Ambrosia Bio is not the only one trying to produce rare sugar at an affordable price. In January, the startup American Bonumose, with the help of ASR Group, the largest cane sugar refiner in the world, opened a new plant to produce another, the tagatosealso at a lower cost.
It is also considered an excellent sugar substitute in all aspects, even surpassing allulose with a 90% of the sweetness. “It’s even more like sugar,” says Ed Rogers, CEO of Bonumose.
Other new sweeteners are also emerging that increase the volume of foods. In the UK, The Supplant Company has developed a low calorie, low glycemic response product that is slightly sweet.
Supplant produces it from agricultural waste, including cobs, husks and stems, using enzymes found in fungi.
It is functionally like sugar and the raw material is abundant, cheap and environmentally sustainable, says chief executive Dr Tom Simmons.
Another Israeli startup, Incredo, incorporates sugar crystals into the inert mineral silica (sand), which is commonly used in small quantities in foods, for example as an anti-caking agent.
By physically modifying it in this way, you effectively make the sugar sweeter: it dissolves more easily in your mouth, so less of it is required to get the same flavor.
Incredo’s clients include American bulk chocolate manufacturer Blommer.
Meanwhile, the calls sweet proteinsthousands of times sweeter than sugar and found naturally in some equatorial fruits and berries, offer a tastier, high-intensity sweetener, proponents say.
American startup Oobli produces sweet proteins by fermenting sugar, using genetically modified yeast.
“Sweet proteins work perfectly in soft drinks“says Ali Wing, CEO of Oobli.
However, startups face obstacles.
one can be find clients. It can take a few years for large manufacturers to reformulate a product using a new ingredient.
Startups must also demonstrate that they can produce their alternatives reliably and at scale.
There may also be hesitancy among buyers when trying new products.
Get the regulatory approval For new ingredients it can also be difficult.
While most have their products approved in the US through the “Generally Recognized As Safe” (or GRAS) designation, approval is more onerous in Europe.
Allulose is not currently approved in the UK or European Union (EU), although a consortium of companies is trying to change that.
The Supplant Company is preparing dossiers to submit its product to UK and EU regulators.
Meanwhile, tagatose has long been approved in the US, UK and EU.
But marketing it can be difficult: It is not allowed to describe it as “zero sugar”, like allulose, because it has a little more calories than this.
It’s exciting to see new alternatives to sugar emerge, says Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional research biologist at the University of California, Davis.
The best solution is to eliminate sugar, but it can be difficult. “We need these products“, it states.
Stanhope believes that, contrary to WHO recommendation, sugar-free sweeteners may be useful for weight management and reducing the risk of diabetes.
He points out that the WHO based its recommendation on a single type of study.
But he also says that each new product should be carefully evaluatedboth for its safety and its possible benefits.
“We need clinical trials,” he concludes.
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