By Eliyahu Korn, NoCamels -
Sweetness – the thought of it fills our minds with indulgence and temptation, and for many, dread over the consequences and adverse health impact. Medical research has shown a strong link between excess sugar intake and obesity, as well as a slew of diseases. Artificial sweeteners don’t appear to be much better and their consumption has been linked with adverse effects such as weight gain, metabolic disorders, type 2 diabetes, and alteration of gut microbiota.
Physicians, nutritionists, scientists, and health experts the world over – as well as the UN, and the World Health Organization – have all continued to issue warnings about the negative health effects of sugar, and its social and environmental consequences.
Dr. Ilan Samish, a protein scientist, biochemistry lecturer, and entrepreneur, has not only warned that “sugar is public enemy number one” and a form of “slow suicide,” he’s also sought to redefine the sweet sensation that satisfies our palate. Dr. Samish founded food tech startup Amai Proteins (Amai means sweet in Japanese) and developed a healthier substitute suitable for mass production based on the idea of newly designed proteins that are both sweet and sustainable. The company, which plans to go to market in 2022, uses Agile Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) to design proteins that are nearly identical to those found in nature.
Sweet proteins are produced by tropical plants in Malaysia, China, West Africa, and other locations, but only in the last 50 years has there been scientific research to understand their properties.
“The problem,” Samish says, “is not to find these proteins, but to make them durable enough to be useful outside of their comfort zones.” Sweet proteins are a treasure of nature. They are far sweeter than sugar and are even healthy. Nonetheless, until now they have been virtually useless in food production because of their sparsity and inability to maintain their structure under the conditions required to be used for food.
Dr. Samish recently welcomed NoCamels for a tour of Amai Proteins’ Rehovot offices and revealed a long, multidisciplinary scientific and personal journey that is reaching its culmination – a venture-backed effort to redefine sweetness in the global mass food market together with skilled veterans from Israel’s best food companies, like SodaStream, Tnuva, and Materna and a team of talented scientists.
Engineering a stable, healthy protein that can be used for food is long and complex. Accordingly, Samish assembled a team of five PhDs that he plans to grow to eight in the short term as Amai matures.
He first established himself in the Israeli scientific community, completing his master’s and PhD at the Weizmann Institute under the supervision of Dr. Avigdor Scherz who developed a drug to treat prostate cancer. He tells NoCamels not only of the instruction and guidance he received, but also about, “learning the process of taking an idea from the brain of a mad scientist into the real world.” Upon completion, he pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania writing the code to redesign protein membranes for Bill DeGrado, a pioneer in the field of protein design.
After a few years as a professor, Samish decided to halt his academic career to seriously address the problematic relationship that society has with sugar. He applied to The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, an Israeli incubator for food startups without a proof of concept, gaining acceptance on the merits of his CV.
The acceptance awarded Amai, then in its first days, two years and NIS 3 million to produce a fundable milestone, a big challenge considering the complex, multidisciplinary nature of the task. Just producing a first sample product required teams skilled in protein design, biotechnology, precision fermentation and purification, analytics, and food technology. Once the two years were up, Amai – thanks to creative outsourcing and determination – attained the recommendations of PepsiCo, Ocean Spray, Danone, and others who vouched for it as the real deal.
To design the perfect proteins, those that provide incredible levels of sweetness without the negative effects of sugar, Samish first started by observing how proteins grow in harsh and extreme conditions in nature like the depths of the ocean, acidic swamps, hot geysers, or Antarctica. The idea was to mimic their useful traits in the designs of new, sweet proteins.
Once formed, the proteins undergo a testing process which Samish refers to as “protein torture,” to understand the limits of each protein in demanding conditions like heat as well as high acid or fat levels. Then, a DNA sequence that will code for the desired amino acids is engineered and prepared for production. It is printed and placed into yeast or another microorganism for precision fermentation led by Head of Protein Purification, Dr. Hagay Shmuely, who earned his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular and Structural Biology from Ben Gurion University. This “brewing” process must be done in ideal conditions with a precise temperature and level of oxygen to make the yeast as happy as possible so that it reproduces optimally. Once this is complete, the blend undergoes downstream processing to turn it into a clear liquid or a dry powder that can be blended into food.
Amazingly, one teaspoon of Amai’s protein replaces 100 pounds of sugar—and 1 kilogram of the protein is as sweet as between 3 and 10 tons of sugar. Currently, Amai’s proteins are produced in an R&D capacity; Shmuely seeks to perfect a model that will allow the company to reach production scale in an economically efficient way.
“One ton of sugar costs around $400. We need to reduce our cost as much as possible because sugar is cheap,” explains Hagay. He has calculated that using a 200,000-liter fermenter in the future, Amai will be able to reach a price that is considerably cheaper than sugar, allowing the company to achieve its goal of substantially reducing sugar consumption worldwide.
Global food companies see incredible value in such a sugar-reducing protein. OceanSpray, which earned $2 billion in revenue in 2020, recently inked a deal with Amai to produce sugar-reduced cranberry juice. When tasting the juice, the taste is seemingly identical, but that’s exactly the point.
“Amai allows food producers to integrate a healthy, cheap alternative to sugar without compromising on taste even a bit,” Dr. Samish tells NoCamels.
Dr. Samish doesn’t believe that the answers to sugar lies in the “diet” options, and he doesn’t seek to compete with them.
“My experience with the large food companies teaches me that taste is king,” says Dr. Samish, explaining why Amai’s approach is to reduce and complement sugar instead of aiming to replace it. “The diet market is a small one that is providing inferior taste, and people clearly prefer the sensory profile and taste of full sugar products. We are providing a cheap, healthy, tasty way to cut sugar dramatically without compromising the taste one bit.”
Because of its potency, Amai’s proteins are only needed in very small quantities and can replace between 30 and 80 percent of sugar in food items without changing the taste, depending on the product. Consumers enjoy both the taste and feeling of sugar in their foods, something that would be lost if the sugar were entirely removed. That is a job that lies on the shoulders of Inbar Zuker, the Head of Sensory Evaluation at Amai Proteins. Zuker is a food technologist who used to work for Tzabar Salads, Rimon Beverages, and Israel’s two sensory analysis firms – TNS and NewSense (a Nielsen Group subsidiary)and now oversees the operation of blending the sweetener into different foods.
She recruited 20 “super tasters”, those who possess outstanding sensory awareness and make up approximately 5 percent of the general population, for a sensory expert panel. They meet twice a week, or receive food packages during lockdown, to evaluate the subtleties of changes in taste, sweetness, texture, and everything in between that can change as ingredients are added or removed, or after a food is stored for a long period of time.
“With all of the advanced technology involved in developing Amai’s products, no machine can measure sweetness, only the human palate,” Zuker tells NoCamels.
Amai is currently in the process of moving to a 1,100 square meter facility as it transitions from a proof-of-concept R&D to production R&D. Moving to larger, scalable pilot facilities with analytics and a larger food and beverage portfolio will allow the company to test more quickly and in a way that will be easily applicable to food companies. Amai also indicated that it has plans to move into non-sweet proteins in an effort to fix the food system as a whole using CPD and precision fermentation, and alternative meat.
This plan is led by Yigal Gezundhait, Amai’s chief operations officer, who came to the company after working at Teva Pharmaceuticals, Rafa Labs, and Vitamed, and Shmuel (Sam) Marko, Amai’s VP for Food Technology who joined after gaining experience with SodaStream, Tnuva, and Materna.
The move and growth are being advanced alongside the building of a global distribution plan with food suppliers, beginning in the United States and Europe that is planned to launch in 2022.