In 2018, calories are out. The cornerstone of modern healthy nutrition is the distinction between carbohydrates (bad) and sugar (very bad) and proteins (preferable). People, however, still crave something sweet. One possible solution is a sugar-flavored protein.
There are very few sweet proteins in nature and they are very difficult to produce. Dr. Ilan Samish, who specializes in computer design of proteins, wants to apply the knowledge he has acquired to designing a new sweet protein. He is already on the way.
"The sugar substitute market amounts to $9 billion, a tenth of the sugar market," Samish says. "There are two problems with the substitutes. One is an aftertaste and the other is that some of the substitutes are suspected of having a negative influence on health, although the proof of this is not clear cut. A study by the Weizmann Institute of Science showed that the common sweeteners - saccharine, aspartame, and sucralose - increase the level of sugar in the bloodstream."
Another complaint is that the sweeteners are expensive to use in industrial food. As long as consumers are willing to accept cheap conventional sugar, manufacturers will not feel any need to replace it. In addition, sugar contributes to the makeup of food.
One of the proteins designed by Amai Proteins, the company founded by Samish (Amai means "sweet" in Japanese), is based on a protein named thaumatin found in the katemfe plant. "These plants grow in the jungle, where many plants fight for light and the attention of animals, so that the animals will eat them and spread the seeds over a distance," Samish says. "That's why plants have grown in the jungle from China to Africa. Some of them contain various sweet proteins instead of sugar, but it is difficult to grow them industrially, except for thaumatin, which is stable but expensive to produce and is currently in short supply." Thaumatin is found in premium products such as vitamins for children and Pepsi Next. It is sometimes added in small quantities together with other sweeteners with which it is synergetic.
Amai Proteins adapts thaumatin for mass consumption by redesigning it and producing it through the use of biotechnology. "We express it in microorganisms such as yeast and grow the microorganism in a fermentation facility. The microorganism is genetically engineered, but we clean the protein, and in the final product there's no trace of the cell in which it grew. According to the regulatory authorities in the US and Europe, therefore, the product is not considered genetically engineered.
"Such a protein is linked only to the sweetness receptor in the mouth. In the body itself, it behaves just like a protein; it is quickly digested with no effect on the sugar level in the bloodstream. The protein is not processed by bacteria attracted to sugar in the intestine and does not alter the microbiome in favor of sugar consumption. It does not enter the liver, does not cause a burden on the kidneys, and is connected to no sugar receptor other than the one in the mouth."
Amai Proteins is working on two other sweet proteins developed with computer protein design methods that generate a maximum of sweetness receptor activity in the mouth while making the proteins stable, durable, and non-harmful. While sweet proteins tend to adhere to the tongue, the proteins that Amai Proteins is developing are designed to avoid creating such a response. Adherence to the tongue causes long-lasting aftertaste, such as those familiar from stevia.
As far as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned, these new products require a trial, but as a new food, not a drug. Such a product undergoes a few months of trials in order to demonstrate that it is non-harmful. "In the US, it can be sold after self-approval of a 'new food' and a finding by an internal committee of experts that the protein is safe to use. For our part, we're not worried about the product's effects because we know that in its design process we are removing elements that turn food into allergens," Samish explains.
Amai Proteins' product sweetens products, but in the first stage will not replace sugar's contribution to the makeup of food. "We replace a teaspoonful of sugar (four grams) with two milligrams of protein, so if we replace the sugar in chocolate, it will weigh half as much; it will be necessary to replace the rest with nutritional fibers, which are more expensive than sugar," Samish says. Amai Proteins has demonstrated its products in the beverage markets (huge markets in which most of the volume is water), dairy products (in which most of the volume is milk), and protein products for athletes (whose price justifies the conversion). The products are also suitable for premium markets such as the market for diabetes and dieting, drugs and chewing additives, and sweet coatings for drugs and candy. "We are already cooperating with SodaStream," Samish states. The products contain various sweet proteins. The "designer proteins" are being developed and are meanwhile being produced in small quantities.
"I did my post-doctorate with Prof. William "Bill" DeGrado, who invented computer designed proteins, and I felt that this was being discussed a lot in higher education and not enough was being done," Samish remembers. He says that he realized that the computer method was very suitable to the design of sweet protein. "In contrast to movement proteins, such as enzymes, these proteins are inflexible and therefore easier to design. On the other hand, they are complex and hard to design without computers."
Amai Proteins grew in Strauss's The Kitchen Hub incubator, which has invested NIS 3 million in the company to date. "They helped us a lot in making connections, especially in the food market," Samish remarks. The company also received a $120,000 grant from Amazon and Google; it buys cloud computing services from the two companies for its computer design.
"The next stage is switching from hundreds of thousands of proteins on the computer and dozens expressed in the laboratory to one sweet protein that will be manufactured on a large scale, which will require a major financing round. Sales can begin within two years. After we solve the sugar problem, we'll use our technology on other proteins for the functional food and medical market," Samish says.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 12, 2018
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