Sugar – those addictive sweet white crystals – not only causes obesity but also leads to a range of environmental and sustainability problems. The sugar substitutes that have been developed so far are both unhealthy and unsustainable. Against the backdrop of this reality, two Israeli companies have developed revolutionary solutions that offer both physical and environmental benefits.
In a reality where one of every three children worldwide is overweight or obese, not to mention 40% of the adult population, sugar is a critical health problem.
Our modern-day high-sugar industrialized food has led the average person to consume two or even three times more than the maximum recommended daily quantity of sugar (between 6-9 teaspoons per day) – less than the quantity of sugar in a single can of Coke. Most people consume nearly twenty teaspoons of sugar a day and children consume even 30. Nutritional habits and health are primarily formed between the ages of 6-12, and sweet is a favorite flavor already from childhood.
Exaggerated consumption of sugar was defined in 2017 as the largest health problem for humans after bacteria and viruses. Studies have proved that sugar is the central factor in the metabolic syndrome that includes obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, teeth problems and even emotional problems. As the result of these insights, fifty countries, including Israel, have already imposed taxes on sugar.
Furthermore, sugar is one of the less environmentally friendly crops, requiring huge quantities of water, pesticides, and fertilizers. Transporting the large quantities of sugar creates significant carbon dioxide pollution and, in many places, extracting the sugar from the cane involves burning the cane. And to make matters worse, sugar has been found to mainly harm the weaker sectors of the population.
Reducing sugar consumption is complex and entails difficulties not just because of addiction to the sweet taste but because sugar is also a preservative that contributes to a product’s texture, appearance, and color. As a low-cost raw material, many manufacturers also add it to increase mass and volume. The depressing result is that 70% of supermarket products contain added sugar.
To Rearrange the Crystal
“Because taste is the primary reason for repeat purchase of a product, the challenge is how to solve the problem of over-consumption without compromising the flavor, especially for children”, says Liat Cinamon, Chief Growth Officer of DouxMatok.
DouxMatok’s story began last century. The late Avraham Baniel conceived the idea during the British Mandate period and later worked as an advisor to the President and CEO of the English sugar substitutes company that developed Sucralose – widely known under the ‘Sweet & Low’ brand name. Baniel understood that Sucralose is not a suitable solution for the population most in need of it – children – and had the idea of changing the sugar structure. Only 8 years ago, aged 95, did Baniel have the time to realize his idea and, together with his son Eran Baniel, established the DouxMatok company.
DouxMatok’s solution is to significantly reduce sugar (between 30%-50% depending on the product), by altering the sugar’s structure and without compromising on flavor. This is a purely sugar-based solution, without any artificial substances, the main raw material being sugar canes or sugar beets.
“From a technological perspective, the idea is to make sugar more efficient. The assumption is that only 20%-30% of the sugar is consumed by the taste buds when chewing food and most of it is simply ingested at the cost of calories and carbohydrates but without benefitting from most of it”, Cinamon explains.
DouxMatok has developed a technology that disrupts the structured form of the molecules in the sugar crystal. The result is a “rearranged” crystal that dissolves in the mouth faster and more of which reaches the taste buds. The improved product allows to enjoy the sweetness of the sugar while using almost half the quantity.
The company, located in Petach Tikva, has fifty employees, 80% of whom engage in R&D in three primary areas. The first is materials science where the team is responsible for designing the sugar structure. The team working in the second discipline consists of engineers responsible for “scale up” i.e., the product’s practical application. “One of the fundamental decisions we took is to enter the existing industry. Sugar is such a traditional industry, and we had no intention of interfering in the existing product but rather, chose to collaborate with existing sugar companies and factories to reach agreement over production of our raw material. Our engineers work with sugar companies and apply our technology in their products”, says Cinamon.
The third discipline, that is now the most significant for the company, includes food technologists working in developing and adapting recipes. When you remove 50% of the sugar from a recipe, it goes wrong. DouxMatok’ s technologists not only integrate our product in chocolate and cakes, but also become familiar with other raw material that can compensate for the sugar reduction. Their expertise or art is to design an alternative recipe that will be similar in taste and texture to the original one. Indeed, in taste tests we’ve conducted at the company between a chocolate praline, caramel sweet, and cookies in which both regular sugar and the DouxMatok sugar were used, we were unable to detect any difference – either in texture or sweetness.
The Unbelievable Sugar
DouxMatok’ s primary product is ‘Incredo Sugar’ which looks like sugar and behaves like sugar. The change in structure is undetectable to the naked eye. The company currently manufactures ‘Incredo Sugar’ as part of a commercial agreement in Canada and the product is sold to food companies in the US and Europe. However, the work doesn’t end with the product’s sale, as Cinamon explains: “An important part of our activity is providing service or technical support on how to build the formula because the companies struggle to compensate for the sugar removed from recipes”.
So why is ‘Incredo Sugar’ only sold to industry and not in retail chains as a regular sugar substitute? Because it is only suitable for use in solids and not in liquids or beverages. “The effect of our sugar is based on its dissolution in saliva. If I put it in coffee, I will get a lower level of sweetness than regular sugar”, Cinamon stresses.
During its early years of operation, DouxMatok benefited greatly from Innovation Authority grants. The company has raised 30 million dollars so far and is now in the middle of a third funding round. The product’s sales began in late 2021, following five years of development. In 2020, DouxMatok was included in Time Magazine’s annual list of 100 best inventions.
“Our initial goal is to make our product as available as possible to food companies, to offer them our support, and to make it available for consumers”, says Cinamon. “The second goal is to improve the product. We have already launched the first version and are now working hard on the second one that will lower the cost, improve operation, and make the product easier to use. Our third goal is to expand the platform beyond sugar i.e., to use our human and technological assets in applying it to additional food products.
“We are observing the revolutions in the fields of meat and milk substitutes and aspire to be at the forefront of the sugar reduction revolution. The goal is to significantly reduce global sugar consumption via a solution that doesn’t compromise on flavor”, summarizes Cinamon.
The Secret of The Designed Protein
The competition was fierce: more than 2,000 startups from around the world entered the multi-stage ‘Extreme Tech Challenge’ competition – the world’s leading impact competition – all vying to win first prize.
Among the competitors is the Israeli startup Amai Proteins which has developed an innovative technology for producing a protein sweetener that is both sweet and tasty, as well as healthy and sustainable. After the judges tasted lemon soda, cranberry juice, ketchup, peanut butter, fruit leather, and marzipan that were all sweetened with the new protein, they voted with their taste buds – and awarded Amai Proteins first prize.
Amai (“sweet” in Japanese) Proteins was founded in 2016 as part of ‘The Kitchen’ food-tech incubator operated by the Innovation Authority and the Strauss Group. The person behind the company is Dr. Ilan Samish who, during his time in academia, was considered an esteemed and award-winning proteins scientist. Dr. Samish left the academic world after 18 years and decided to establish a startup aimed at curing food and society by integrating tasty and healthy protein components into food that we consume every day.
“When I founded Amai, I had a major dilemma – whether to design proteins for the pharmaceutical market or the food market. I chose the second option because I think that heathy and sustainable food such as a protein sugar substitute will save more lives than most medications and will even help my children to not feel guilty when they enjoy something sweet”, Dr. Samish explains.
So, what is the secret of Amai’s designer protein? Dr. Samish explains that protein is a chain of beads called amino acids that can be used to build an unlimited variety of proteins. The process of building new chains is called computational protein design – a new field that requires multidisciplinary knowledge of biology, computer science, physics, and biochemistry. It is not surprising to discover that there are very few people trained in all these disciplines, although the field is expanding rapidly.
Amai focuses on designing proteins that are similar to those which exist in extreme conditions such as the Dead Sea, hot springs, deep in the ocean, in Antarctica, or in highly acidic swamps. “These are places with proteins that have learned to live in hell. If we design new proteins that imitate them, they will be much better suited to the industrial food market where they contend with long shelf life, high temperatures, high levels of acidity etc.”, stresses Dr. Samish.
There are eight different categories of sugar reduction but none of them really succeed in meeting the criteria to which Amai aspires in order to achieve a sugar reduction of more than 30% – taste, health, low cost, and product suitability. Some of today’s sweeteners break up in high temperatures and acidity while others are not healthy and not tasty. Lastly, but not less important, is that the substitute must be environmentally friendly.
“The diet products market has existed for many years, but its growth is slow because people are not prepared to eat sweeteners that are unhealthy or not tasty. 90% of the sweeteners market is still sugar and fructose syrup, that is even worse than sugar. In 2018, the American Heart Association published a severe warning in which it wrote that high-intensity sweeteners, both natural and artificial, are unhealthy so, from that perspective, there is no good substitute for sugar today”, Dr. Samish explains. Last month a group from the Weizmann Institute published in the prestigious ‘Cell’ journal that the commonly used sweeteners alter our microbiome and delay the glycemic response, namely, promote diabetes (https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(22)00994-1).
70% Less Sugar – Same Taste
That is where Amai’s platform – called ‘Pro Cube’ – enters the picture. It consists of three stages. The first is designing proteins that will be suitable for the tough conditions of the food market. The second stage is precision fermentation – growing our proteins with yeast or fungi, via fermentation processes, like in a brewery, the difference being that we introduce air into the fermentation process because we want to produce protein, not alcohol. Following fermentation, the substance is transferred to a centrifuge that separates the yeast from the liquid from which the protein is secreted. The protein is then filtered and dried to attain a white powder that is good for people. “A single kilogram of our white powder replaces three tons of sugar”, Dr. Samish explains, “and when measuring sweetening units, we are therefore cheaper than sugar”.
The third stage is that of food technology. “The most important laboratory is that of the food technology where we ultimately prepare our food. We take products that everyone is familiar with and reduce the quantities of sugar as long as our professional tasters cannot detect a difference. We are not competing with the diet products market but rather, with the sugar market. For example, our ketchup has 70% less added sugar, and no-one notices a difference in taste.
Today, we know of six types of protein that are much sweeter than sugar. The problem with these proteins is that they are unstable, their taste is imperfect, and they are very expensive. Based on these proteins, Amai has developed the world’s sweetest and most stable protein which studies have also proven to be non-allergenic and safe for use and digested like any other protein.
“All known sweeteners give a sweet taste but continue to activate sweet taste receptors in the digestive system. When they are broken down by the liver and kidneys, they bring with them the potential for an assortment of problems”, Dr. Samish emphasizes. In contrast, our protein behaves like any other protein and, once entering the stomach, is digested, and broken down by the body into amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. From a protein value perspective, because a teaspoon of sugar is replaced by a milligram of protein, the quantity is so small that the process doesn’t involve any added protein value.
Amai currently has 36 employees and is located in the Rehovot Science Park where it produces weekly amounts of sugar on an industrial scale. Currently, the company is undergoing a process of growth and recruitment.
Amai, that has benefitted from joint grants of the EU and the Innovation Authority, has agreements of collaboration with giant companies such as PepsiCo, Danone, Mars Wrigley, and Ocean Spray. If everything goes according to plan, it will soon receive regulatory approvals in Israel, the US, Europe, and Singapore that will enable it to commence sales. The plan is to begin sales in the US during the second half of 2023 and subsequently in Singapore, South America, and the rest of the world.
“We have received funding from the Innovation Authority via five different programs”, explains Dr. Samish. “The Authority is also a partner in a special pilot to advance a regulatory outline draft for new food in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. The plan is to enter the global market next year and to produce a quantity that will remove 5,000 tons of sugar per year from the market. We aim to reduce the world’s sugar consumption levels by several percentage points.
The company is presently focusing on sweet protein, but the Computational Protein Design Department is already working on designer proteins for the meat, milk, and plant markets. “In all these cases, we know how to make super-proteins that are more stable, tastier, and less allergenic”, he says.
“The vision is very simple as far I am concerned: that my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy things that are both sweet and healthy; that the future standard will be for at least half the products in the supermarket to have significantly less sugar thanks to our protein. I don’t think that we can get rid of our strong desire for sweets, but I do think that it’s possible to make it much healthier and more sustainable”.