The quest for a healthier alternative to sugar has been a challenge for food and beverage innovators for decades, and sparked a wide range of solutions. The Supplant Company has found a way to turn waste into sugar, with great results.
Humans are hard-wired to love sweetness. The global market for sugar is strong in every socioeconomic group. However, demand for alternative sweeteners is rising. Urbanization, increasing income, and greater health awareness of diabetes and obesity are factors that drove the world-wide substitute sugar market to $15.4 B in 2020. Growth is expected to continue at a CAGR of 4.5%. Established companies and startups are hoping for a piece of that pie
Other factors driving the sweet search include deforestation, heavy water use and loss of biodiversity due to sugar plantations, and consumer preference for a ‘natural’ rather than a chemical product. But so far no sugar alternative has managed a clean, sugar-like taste. Sugar is also a functional ingredient that plays many additional roles in food, including:
- Acting as a preservative
- Encouraging growth of yeast in baked goods
- Retaining moisture and preventing staleness
- Preventing the formation of large ice crystals in frozen products like ice cream
There is a start-up which has made substantial progress towards overcoming all these difficulties, and offering a successful alternative to sugar made from cane or beets. Let’s take a look.
The Supplant Company makes sugar from agricultural waste. Founder and CEO Dr. Tom Simmons is a plant scientist. He developed the process while doing research at Cambridge University. He founded the UK-based company in 2018 with funding from Y Combinator.
The product is a blend of plant sugars and fiber. It’s made from up-cycled agricultural by-products. After the harvest of crops such as rice, wheat, sugar cane, and corn, over half the plant material is left as waste. This material is usually burned, plowed under, or used as feed or bedding for animals. Dr. Simmons says:
“There is more of this type of plant fiber on earth than the total amount of cane sugar, starch, flour and vegetable oil combined. For example, every ton of corn grain harvested results in another ton of leftover husks, leaves, and stalks. And corn is one of the most efficiently harvested crops, where the least amount of plant fiber is wasted.”
Simmons’ process of microbial fermentation involves grinding the material to pulp, and feeding it to bacteria or fungi, which consume the waste products and create a fine, white powder with a distinctively sweet flavor. This powder is Supplant.
Supplant has many of the most important features of sugar, with several advantages. Supplant has:
- Low-calorie sweetness. Gram for gram, Supplant has the same sweetness as sugar, but fewer than half the calories.
- Dietary fiber. Supplant contains dietary fiber, which is an advantage in the US, where only about 5% of the population gets adequate fiber from food.
- Low glycemic index. In blood sugar studies, Supplant’s glycemic reaction was only 15% that of sucrose.
- Probiotics. As a fermented food, Supplant’s probiotics contribute to digestive health
Supplant has already received preliminary approval from food regulators in the EU. It’s available in the US under the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) process.
Supplant’s Sweet Success
To bring Supplant to the public, Dr. Simmons and his team partnered with Michelin chef Thomas Keller, the only US chef to have more than one 3-star rating in the Michelin Guide. According to Tom Simmons:
“This has been an enormously pivotal partnership for us. We actually launched the company from an ice cream truck in front of his (Chef Keller’s) Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley, and gave out ice cream, cookies, and chocolate to passersby. They loved them.”
Supplant gives cooked and baked goods the caramelization, bulk, texture, and crystallization of sugar. It can replace traditional sugar at about a 1:1 ratio. Using Supplant, Chef Keller developed recipes for a number of foods such as catsup, barbeque sauce, chocolate and ice cream, to be served in his restaurants. He says Supplant doesn’t dissolve like sugar, and takes some trial and error to learn to use. However, it brings out appealing aspects in foods. His restaurants use half Supplant and half sugar in some items, while others are sweetened only with Supplant.
“We don’t really know that much about the science behind it. They didn’t know that much about the culinary portion of it. We needed each other to make it successful.” (Chef Thomas Keller)
Supplant-sweetened items are on the menu at all three of Chef Keller’s restaurants: Bouchon Bakery and The French Laundry in California, and at Per Se in New York City. Supplant chocolate bars are also available on the company website.
The official launch of the Supplant company in June 2021 was a promising beginning. Simmons and his team plan to scale up production in the US market, as a B2B supplier and possibly also in retail. Perhaps with the arrival of Supplant we will find that we can have our favorite sweets, as well as healthier bodies and a healthier planet? A very sweet dream indeed.
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