‘Curing food, one protein at a time’: Meet the start-up replacing 1 tsp sugar with 0.5mg protein

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/bogdandreava
©GettyImages/bogdandreava

Related tags: sugar reduction, israel, Protein, Sweeteners

Amai Proteins has set out to address ‘the world’s biggest health challenge’: sugar reduction. The start-up is developing designer proteins that are not only sweeter than sugar, but tasty, scalable, sustainable, and importantly, cheaper than the real thing, CEO and founder Dr Ilan Samish tells FoodNavigator.

When Israeli start-up Amai Proteins launched in December 2016, its objective was to ‘cure the food we eat, one protein at a time’. The company is starting with what CEO and founder Dr Ilan Samish describes as ‘the world’s biggest health challenge’: sugar reduction.

The ongoing obesity crisis is putting pressure on food and beverage manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar present in finished products. In certain geographies, governments are also calling for action.

In the UK, for example, Public Health England (PHE) has challenged manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of high-sugar products, such as cakes and biscuits, by 20% by 2020. However, sugar reduction is a challenge for formulators who want to retain a product’s sweetness, taste, and price point. PHE’s progress reports reveal that food manufacturers are falling short of their targets.

Amai – which comes from the word ‘sweet’ in Japanese – is developing a potential solution to these challenges. By developing ‘designer proteins’, the start-up says its product is not only ‘thousands of times sweeter’ than conventional sugar, but tasty, scalable, and sustainable.

From fruit protein to novel ingredient

Amai was inspired by the discovery of sweet proteins along the equatorial belt. In these regions, covering China and Malaysia to West Africa, plants develop extremely sweet fruit. “Rather than sugar, each of these fruits has a distinct healthy sweet protein that is hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sugar (by weight),” ​noted the firm.

However, these proteins are expensive, are not stable at high temperatures, and have a suboptimal, ‘lingering’ taste, which means that are not best suited to food applications.

amai
The start-up uses a fermentation process to express proteins. Image source: Amai Proteins

Amai uses Agile Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) to design proteins that are 70-100% identical to those found in nature, yet better suited to food production. “We take some amino acid chains of the protein, we mix and match and change [them] to make a new protein. It is 100% protein, [and still] 20 amino acids, but it’s a new sequence,” ​the CEO told FoodNavigator.

Amai then expresses these proteins in yeast, through fermentation, and harvests a white powder, which Dr Samish revealed is “so potent, a teaspoon of our protein is like 50kg of sugar”.

According to the founder, the ingredient is 10,000 times sweeter than sugar, and just half a milligram of the protein can replace one teaspoon of sugar.

The resulting ingredients contain zero calories and zero glycaemic index, and importantly, are ingested as proteins, the founder explained. “Sugars, whether artificial or natural, are all small molecules. Small molecules affect our liver, kidney, and our microbiome.

“[Amai’s] proteins bind to the sweet receptors like proteins [thus triggering the sensation of sweet taste], and are ingested like proteins,” ​said Dr Samish, suggesting that his ingredients don’t cause any damage to the microbiome, liver and kidney.

At scale, the proteins are expected to be 90% cheaper than conventional sugar because of the ‘tiny amount’ required to mimic the same sweetness. “Not to mention deforestation and carbon footprint [benefits], which are huge issues in the sugar industry,” ​we were told.

‘Widely food compatible’

By manufacturing the proteins for the food industry, Amai ensured all off-taste was removed and the ingredient was made thermostable – to withstand pasteurisation in food applications.

Sugar does not, however, provide just sweetness in food formulation. It also contributes to texture and mouthfeel. Dr Samish said that where necessary, ‘a little bit’ of dietary fibre can be added to provide a similar texture to conventional sugar.

Amai Proteins is a member of The Kitchen Food Tech Hub in Israel – a food tech accelerator created by the Strauss Group in collaboration with the Israeli Government.

And in July this year, Amai Proteins joined the third cohort of the European Innovation Technology (EIT) Food RisingFoodStars community.

Amai plans to commercialise its sweet proteins in two formats: a liquid concentrate and a white powder. To date, the start-up has been able to reduce the amount of sugar in ketchup by 70% and is trialling its ingredients with big-name FMCG brands including PepsiCo, Danone, and Ocean Spray.

“We are collaborating with the world’s leading beverage, dairy, and food companies, because I don’t want [just] one company to enjoy all of this,” ​the CEO told this publication. “I want to make an impact. We are very strict, we didn’t give any complete exclusivity [deals].”

The start-up has recently doubled its headcount from five to 10 employees and launched a Series A funding round for $10m. Once closed, the firm predicts it will commercialise within three years.

The sweet designer protein project is, however, just the first application of Amai’s platform, Dr Samish stressed. The start-up plans to develop proteins for meat substitutions, to make their production ‘cheap and viable and sustainable’. It is also working on hypoallergenic proteins and non-inflammatory proteins.

“We have a [range] of additional options which we are checking now [to determine] which one to prioritise over others. But the first applications is definitely the sweetener.”

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