Fi Global Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Chemically-modified fibres can match sugar’s sweetness

Article-Chemically-modified fibres can match sugar’s sweetness

© iStock/AndreyPopov sugar, reduction, sweetener, low-sugar, health, CreditAndreyPopov, iStock-1367488168.jpg
Canadian startup ZeroIN has ambitions to carve out a whole new sweetener category from soluble fibres that have been chemically modified so their sweetness is on a par with sugar.

“On the sweetener landscape today, there are two categories of sweetener: high intensity and low intensity. In terms of sweetness, neither of these is equal to sugar,” Dr Ed Sosa, former post-doctoral researcher at Dalhousie University and founder of ZeroIN, told this publication.

“High intensity sweeteners are completely out of the park – they are anywhere between 30 and thousands of times sweeter than sugar, and the low intensity sweeteners are 60-90% as sweet as sugar. Then you have a narrow band where sugar sits; everything is way above or below.”

He said that sweet spot is where ZeroIN plans to enter the market – right next to sugar – with a sweetening solution that can replace sugar one on one because it delivers both body and sweetness.

Filling the void: a product developer’s nightmare

“The problem has always been this: when you take sugar out of a recipe and replace it with a sweetener, you are left with a massive empty space. Sweeteners cannot fill the void left by the removal of sugar,” said Sosa.

He said the usual approach to this issue is to introduce several ingredients to plug that gap.

“So essentially, food and beverage manufacturers are removing one ingredient and adding three or four, which becomes a nightmare because they have to balance all of these to meet the taste and texture of the original recipe. And that is when, six months and a few million dollars later, the product ends up failing because the consumer says it doesn’t taste the same.”

This is why the market needs sweeteners that are exactly as sweet as sugar, he explained.

Cue sweet fibres…

Sosa also had a personal motivation for researching sugar alternatives – in 2016, his wife developed gestational diabetes whilst expecting their second child. This was what initially prompted him to embark on his mission to find a new, natural sweetening solution.

“So that was the trigger, and I started to look, as a health scientist, for solutions,” he said.

By using first principles, Dr Sosa deciphered the design rules of sugar sweetness. “I basically found what makes sugar taste so good from a chemical perspective,” he said.

He then applied these rules to develop a sugar substitute from soluble fibre, which cannot be digested by the body and therefore cannot contribute to obesity or other health problems.

However, the problem with fibres is that they are not very sweet - usually only 10-30% as sweet as sugar. Therefore, Dr Sosa had to find a way of chemically modifying the fibre to make it sweeter.

Patent application underway

As ZeroIN is in the process of filing a patent, Dr Sosa said he was not at liberty to disclose details of the modification technology, but explained that the starting point for the sweetening solution is the extraction of starch from a variety of feedstocks, such as pea, potato, corn, tapioca and cassava.

“The way it works is that the starch is transformed into a fibre, and then we take that fibre and modify it using different methods. The resulting product is a dietary fibre that is as sweet as sugar.”

In this way, he said the sweet fibres can function as a “drop-in, one on one replacement”.

Improved economics

“Imagine how much money food and beverage manufacturers can save in product development alone and how many market failures they can avoid,” he said.

ZeroIN’s sweet fibre will also cost significantly less than current solutions in the market, according to Dr Sosa.

“We are hoping this cost advantage will accelerate the adoption of our sweet fibre,” he said.  “We believe there is nothing like it on the market, that sweet fibre is effectively creating a new category.”

ZeroIN has completed a small pilot testing the sweet fibres in a sugar-free chocolate prototype. In this trial, the next generation sweetener was found to outperform high intensity sweeteners, resulting in a taste profile that was similar to sucrose without lingering or intense sweetness.

Sosa said the fibres also work well in ice cream, beverages, chocolate spreads and desserts. At present, the company is only producing on a very small scale in its lab in Nova Scotia, but Sosa said that it is in discussions with global companies and is currently raising funds to set up a pilot production facility that would enable scale up to several hundred kilograms per day.

From a regulatory perspective, ZeroIN does not foresee a challenge, as fibre is already universally approved as a structure.

“This is beneficial in terms of regulatory approvals, both in Europe and North America,” said Dr Sosa, adding “We are most likely going to start with self-affirmed GRAS.

In 2023, ZeroIN was a winner of MassChallenge’s Sustainable Food Solutions Challenge.