Chile has one of the highest diabetes and obesity rates in world. It was this that prompted Naturannova, a Chilean-Argentinian startup, to create a novel peptide sweetener to help reduce sugar consumption.
Excessive sugar consumption is a global health concern. It increases the risk of obesity and is linked to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that obesity nearly tripled globally between 1975 and 2016. To reduce sugar consumption, it has recommended implementing sugar taxes to governments and advised the food industry to promote healthier diets by reducing sugar in processed food.
A growing trend towards healthier and sustainable ingredients means that natural sweeteners are now a viable option to help address the global rise of obesity and reduce sugar consumption.
CEO of Naturannova and biotechnology engineer, Juan Carlos Duarte, has been studying the potential of proteins for over ten years, identifying a new sweet peptide to reduce sugar consumption.
“[Its] name is Sweet Protein + […], a unique new all-natural plant-based peptide replacing current sweeteners in the food and beverage industry,” explains Antonella De Lazzarri, founder and chief business officer (CBO) of Naturannova. “It is a specific amino acid sequence found in an edible plant protein and the final ingredient is purely this protein with the desired functionalities in powder or liquid format. The novelty is that you can't find this protein alone in nature, but you can trace the original vegetable source.”
Taste first, flavour second
The startup, based in Argentina with Chilean founders, saw an opportunity to create a novel yet natural sweetener “without compromising [on] taste,” said De Lazzarri. Initially the primary focus for Naturannova was perfecting the sweetener’s taste to be as close to sugar as possible.
“It has a... broad food application. But now we are focused on dairy and flavoured water. They only need to be sweetened and... companies are looking for a clean label,” said De Lazzarri.
A healthier, sustainable alternative
Naturannova’s sweetener is developed using precision fermentation, technology that uses microbes (bacteria), yeast or microalgae to produce a protein, molecule, or a substance that is identical to those traditionally found in the target ingredient. This technology does not require a huge amount of water, land or agrochemicals that damage the environment, making the production of Sweet Protein + a more sustainable process.
“To scale the ingredients affordably we use precision fermentation, and this production process uses the power of microorganisms. [It’s a way] to make microbes behave as cell factories that make a large quantity of something new, in our case this sweetener” said De Lazzarri.
It contains zero calories, is derived from a vegetable source, and has a low glycaemic index value. When compared to other sweeteners like stevia Sweet Protein + has ten times the sweetness and no after taste.
Scaling up Sweet Protein +
At present, Naturannova is an early-stage startup, working at lab scale and producing milligrams of Sweet Protein + to order. However, there is much opportunity to scale up and produce larger quantities in the near future.
“...we have received many offers from big food and beverages to start a collaboration together to scale from milligrams to grams, kilograms and hopefully tonnes. [...] These opportunities will allow us to grow faster and enter the market sooner [...] We need to regulate our ingredient, protect, and patent it,” said De Lazzari.
The company needs EFSA approval to market the ingredient in Europe, according to De Lazzari, and is on the way to getting GRAS status from the FDA.
Standardising protocols and scaling up will ultimately be a “big challenge” the founder explained. Working with a biological process involves many variables requires patience, she said. Equally, developing the product is achieved by balancing reading papers on pathology and proteins as well as spending time in the laboratory producing and validating theory, she added.