Amai Proteins has found the sweet solution for sugar
The foodtech company has developed a healthy sweetener made from computer-designed proteins. While it is still not available publicly, the additive could reduce sugar content in anything from soft drinks to ice cream
Creating sweeteners is complex, he explained, and also limited in fashion. “Unlike with pharmaceuticals, we can’t make millions of different variants. In foodtech, we can only test very few, since we have to work with the human tongue human tongue can taste a very complex flavor profile which no high throughput machine can replicate yet is limited by the number of samples it can taste. Thus, the number of different samples we can test is very limited. Currently, we have an expert sensory panel with 20 test-tasters, and about 35 different sample variants,” Samish told CTech in an interview.The company wanted to make a global impact, solve a world problem, and chose to follow the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to halt the rise of and improve the health of those who suffer from diabetes. “We chose to focus on sugar. lIt's the largest non-communicable disease and threat to health, and also isn’t a sustainable market. The burden of the sugarcane market is great: there is a high need for crops, fertilizers pollute the soil, go underground or into the sea and are a huge contaminant, and the production and transportation also releases a lot of carbon emissions.”
Designer proteins To that effect, Amai - which means sweet in Japanese - chose to rely on computational design. “Currently, there is a gap between the proteins which exist in nature and are unstable, and the needs of the mass food market. We wanted to fix that,” he added. “Proteins usually live in mellow temperatures or low acidity, and in order to move them to the mass food market we need to ensure they have a long shelf life. We want to know how they survive in harsh environments,” he explained, recalling his studies of proteins from Yellowstone, Antarctica, and the Dead Sea. “We mimic the mechanism of protein adaptations to adaptations to extreme environments - whether they prefer hot environments (thermophiles), acidic ones (acidophiles), or colder ones (psychrophiles). Then we implement into these proteins functionalities which are found in nature, such as sweetness. Currently, there are over 200 sweet proteins, including the lysozymes present in our tears, tears, with very few defined as hyper-sweet or 3,000 times sweeter than sugar.” These hyper-sweet proteins are located in low-lying shrubs along the Equatorial Belt from Malaysia through West Africa, and aren’t found easily in nature. Amai’s sweeteners are proteins that can survive the harshest conditions, or as Samish puts it “are fit to survive in hell.” Current sweeteners are small molecules, he explained, which interact with our inner organs and can raise insulin levels, cause obesity, or are carcinogenic metabolites. “We create proteins, which are a necklace of beads of amino acids. Amai’s proteins are digested just like other proteins and are safe. They also have no potential allergic response. Our sweetener activates the sweet receptor in oral cavities like all others, but doesn’t interact with other organs, because it is already fully digested in the upper digestive tract..” Amai has designed designer food proteins with a sweetness threshold that is 16,000 times sweeter than sugar. “These molecules are extremely stable, and can be put into a hot cup of coffee, and still taste sweet.” Currently, the company is focused on creating sweet substitutes for ice cream, soft drinks such as lemonade and soda, chewing gum, yogurt, ketchup, and more. Its sweetener is added to these products as a substitute, reducing overall sugar, fat, and even salt content. Amai’s offering has less lingering taste compared to some sweeteners like stevia.
“We’re not in the business of sugar elimination, but sugar reduction,” Samish repeated, adding that in order for foods to be labeled as sugar-reduced, the figure needs to be cut down by 30%. However, Amai narrows down that number to between 35%-80% without compromising on taste. “We compete with the sugar market and not the diet market, which we believe is much broader and important in fighting diseases like diabetes.”Sweetness isn’t the company’s only focus, and it aims to revolutionize the foodtech industry with its slew of designer protein products for meat, milk, and plant industries. While proteins are abundant in health benefits, their relative stability in nature is rare, so the company wants to introduce new proteins that are not found in the wild. Sustainability is also another crucial factor. “Currently two-thirds of our land use isn’t sustainable, and we need to find methods to sustainably produce healthier food.” The company relies on precision fermentations to grow its proteins in the lab, and the method is safe and not harmful to the environment. It is similar to how beer, Korean kimchi, or yogurt is made, and according to the FDA, is GMO-free.