A zero-calorie sweetener that is actually natural? It’s an area that companies are frantically working on to bring to market, with many turning to fruit to achieve it.
UK company Magellan Life Sciences claims it will be the first to get there with its sweet-tasting protein brazzein, which comes from the West African fruit known as oubli.
The protein is around 1,500 times sweeter than sugar and has a similar flavour profile to sucrose. Crucially, it also lacks the bitter aftertaste common to alternatives like stevia. But the oubli fruit is a rare, protected species, making scalability impossible.
It’s a common issue facing this area of research, which is plagued by high prices, lack of supply, imperfect taste profiles and lack of sufficient shelf life and stability.
Tastes like sugar
But Magellan Life Sciences thinks it has finally cracked the code.
It has developed a fermentation process that will provide commercial quantities of the protein that are identical to the natural extracts. It is using an FDA-approved microorganism strain and food-grade chemicals to provide carbon and nitrogen to aid the fermentation process.
A patent has been granted in India and is pending in the EU, US and China.
Co-founder of Magellan, Dr Abhiram Dukkipati, said: “The end consumer is seeking a sweetener that actually tastes like sugar without any of the off-tastes of stevia. Brazzein is closer in taste to sugar than steviol glycosides. The sheer taste factor puts brazzein at a significant advantage over stevia and most other artificial sweeteners.”
Other benefits for food manufacturers are that brazzein is water soluble, withstands cooking in high temperatures as well as freezing, and has some interesting pH values.
Dr Dukkipati is setting up a pilot plant in Norwich and has plans to get the product approved for use in the UK, which he hopes will happen in the next 18 months. He expects it to be as competitive as premium-quality stevia.
Another bonus is that 1kg of stevia is equivalent to 250g of brazzein, and Magellan is currently conducting trials with food companies to explore its functionality, including bulking properties.
Open to innovation
Another player in this area is Israeli firm Amai Proteins, which is currently creating sweet proteins that can be used in dairy products, beverages, diabetic and sports nutrition, functional food, vitamin supplements and high-end confectionery.
The company uses a computer process to design proteins that are 70% to 100% identical to sweet proteins in nature, with half a million different protein sequences currently in its database.
As with Magellan's method, the proteins are then produced via a fermentation process. Amai Proteins plans to produce its first novel sweet protein in the next two years.
It is checking existing protein sequences and recombining different ones to find out which will have the cheapest price, highest yield, best taste profile, low pH value, good shelf life and stability. Two sweet proteins have already been created but production is still small scale.
Amai Proteins has also been partnering with French food multinational Danone, PepsiCo and SodaStream to experiment on the taste of different sugar and sweet protein combinations for a range of products, such as whipped cream, whey proteins, lemon soda and strawberry drink.
For yoghurt, the company sweetened it with 50% artificial sugar and 50% sweet proteins.
Founder and CEO of Amai Proteins, Dr Ilan Samish, said: “Most could not differentiate between this and yoghurt sweetened with 100% artificial sugar, which shows that such sugar-sweet protein combination is a good fit for yoghurt.”
When it came to the lemon soda, consumers preferred the one sweetened with sugar and sweet protein, rather than one containing stevia.
Dr Samish said they are talking with food and beverage companies who are interested in sugar reduction. He added that for Amai Proteins, the current roadblocks are that sweet proteins can only withstand temperatures of 85 degrees Celsius, so can’t be used in bakery, caramelising and other high heat applications.
However, he thinks it’s a lucrative market crying out for innovation.
“The sweetener market is worth hundred billions, but less than 10% of the sweetening market uses sugar substitute,” he said.