Could computationally designed sweet proteins revolutionise sugar replacement sector?

By Tingmin Koe contact

- Last updated on GMT

Dr Ilan Samish (far right) and his team at Amai Proteins.
Dr Ilan Samish (far right) and his team at Amai Proteins.

Related tags: Protein, reformulation, Sweetener, Sugar substitute, sugar reduction

Israeli firm Amai Proteins has developed computerised 'designer' sweet proteins as it seeks to tap into the sugar replacement market.

In an interview with FoodNavigator-Asia, Dr Ilan Samish, founder and CEO, said that sweet proteins exist naturally in fruits and are hundreds to a thousand times sweeter than sugar, fulfilling both health and taste requirements.

Currently, Thaumatin (E957)​ is the only sweet protein used globally. It is 2,000 to 3,000 times sweeter than sugar by weight.

The firm is currently creating sweet proteins which can be used to sweeten dairy products, beverages, diabetic and sports nutrition, functional food, vitamin supplements and high-end confectionery.

Located in the south of Tel Aviv, Amai Proteins' biotechnology laboratory was opened in July last year. The firm itself was established in December 2016.

The firm uses Agile Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) to design proteins that are 70% to 100% identical to sweet proteins found in nature.

The proteins are then produced via fermentation using regulatory-approved microorganisms.

“CPD has proven to enable a very large increase in stability and yield when expressing the protein in microorganisms.”

Dr Samish said that there are half a million different sweet protein sequences in their database. The firm is planning to produce and sell their first novel sweet protein in the next two years.

To do so, they are checking on existing sequences, recombining different sequences to find out which one has the best expression, highest yield, taste profile and stability.

“We are checking many different sequences, and will decide on the best protein for each application. Such as one with the cheapest price, best taste, low PH value, high fat, good shelf life, high stability… We also need to make sure we have good scalability.”

To date, Amai Proteins has produced two sweet proteins based on existing protein sequences. Dr Samish revealed that the firm has managed to produce 10 sweet proteins made from novel protein sequences, which is still on small-scale production currently.

Commercial aspects

Amai Proteins has been partnering with big firms such as Danone, PepsiCo and SodaStream in experimenting on the taste of different sugar and sweet protein combinations for a range of products.

This includes lemon soda (with SodaStream), strawberry drink (with Danone), yoghurt, whipped cream and whey proteins.

In the case of yogurt, they sweetened it with 50% artificial sugar and 50% sweet proteins, and found out that “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.”

Sometimes, the firm will also mix sweet protein with other sugar alternatives (such as stevia​) as part of its taste analysis. 

With SodaStream, it produced two types of lemon-soda (Sprite / 7-up), one with 50% sweet proteins and 50% artificial sugar, the other one with 50% sweet proteins and 50% stevia, another type of sugar alternative. 

Dr Samish shared, in this case, consumers were able to differentiate between the two versions, preferring the one sweetened with sugar and sweet protein.

Amai Proteins will work with clients to sort out the combinations that produce the best taste, and the ultimate decision lies with the clients.

“We are talking with food and beverage companies, big companies who are interested in sugar reduction, and some are waiting for us to have more products.”

Dr Samish said that making a novel sweet protein product is expected to take two years. After which, the product could be put on sale in countries that allow self-affirmed regulatory clearance.

Since the firm is expecting to go global, it will also go through full regulatory clearance in countries that do not approve self-affirmed regulatory clearance. The process is expected to take two years.

“We will go into whichever market that allows us to go in at the earliest date and produce which types of application fits our product best.”

Challenges

Usage of sweet proteins is hampered by high price, lack of supply, imperfect taste-profile and lack of sufficient shelf-life and stability in some applications.

Dr Samish said, currently, sweet proteins can only withstand temperatures of up to 85 degrees Celsius and, as such, cannot be used in bakery, product caramelising and other high heat applications.

“From my experience, I believe we can produce sweet proteins that can withstand temperature of 100 degrees and more, but not over 200.”

“Our number one aim is beverage, dairy, functional and premium markets which do not involve high heat.”

As for improving shelf-life, Dr Samish added that AI CPD technology has the ability to extending product shelf life and improve protein stability.

From academia to business frontier

Dr Samish shared that he does not have a bachelor degree, but spent three years studying in seven faculties, including the sciences and business administration at University of Tel Aviv. The programme was aimed to equip students with a wide-ranging knowledge for venturing into new scientific fields.

After which, he completed his masters and PhD at the Weizmann Institute and post-doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, under the tutelage of Bill DeGrado, an expert in protein design.

Samish decided to move to the industry frontier when he observed that there was a lack of good sugar-alternative products, despite global interest in sugar reduction.

“The sweetener market is worth hundred billions, but less than 10% of the sweetening market uses sugar substitute,”​ he said.

In 2016, the high-intensity sweetener (sugar alternatives) market was worth $3 billion, a small fraction of the sweetener market, which reached $90 billion last year. 

The bulk of this came from beverages (47%), followed by snacks and sweets (31%), according to a report by Mordor Intelligence. 

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