PETAH TIKVA, Israel — Plates of cookies, chocolate bars and cakes still warm from the oven line the counter in the kitchen of the Israeli startup DouxMatok. The treats are the freshest example of the…
PETAH TIKVA, Israel — Plates of cookies, chocolate bars and cakes still warm from the oven line the counter in the kitchen of the Israeli startup DouxMatok. The treats are the freshest example of the company’s patented flavor-enhancing technology that allows bakers to use about 30 percent less sugar without losing any sweetness.
“Doing away with sugar is not the solution,” says Eran Baniel, who co-founded DouxMatok with his father, 100-year-old industrial chemist Avraham Baniel. “So we are just making sugar stronger and healthier.”
The company does this by loading ordinary sugar molecules onto tiny particles of dietary fibers like cellulose and minerals like silica, both widely used in food production. This increases the sweet sensation of sugar on the taste buds, meaning less needs to be used, says Eran Baiel, who is the chief executive officer of DouxMatok.
And the global sugar and sweetener industry, under pressure from consumers who want to eat healthier and new U.S. federal government guidelines about food labeling, is paying attention to DouxMatok and to Israel, home to a growing food technology scene.
In what some analysts view as a turning point, in July Germany’s Südzucker, one of the world’s largest sugar producers, signed a partnership deal to manufacture DouxMatok’s product and sell it to industrial food companies starting in 2019. “It’s not the end of sugar yet, but these ‘healthification’ trends are mega-trends that are here to stay, and the whole supply chain needs to adjust,” says Aurélia Britsch, head of commodities research at Fitch Solutions and author of a recent report on the global sugar and industry. “Sudzucker is ahead of the curve.”
The World Health Organization has called for a reduction in the intake of added sugars, and scientific studies have linked high levels of sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes and increased risk of dying from heart disease. Since July the U.S. government has required that food products list the amount of added sugar they contain, so consumers will be more aware of sugar-rich ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.
Since at least 1879, when the first artificial sweetener, saccharine — derived from coal tar — was discovered by accident in a lab at Johns Hopkins University, dozens of alternative low- or zero-calories sweeteners have been on the market.
“There seems to be a never-ending quest for alternative sweeteners,” says Jennifer Kaplan, adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California. But many of these products have fallen short, with some tied to health concerns, many not suitable for baking, and others leaving an aftertaste, Kaplan says.
Sugar consumption is expected to remain steady in most of the developed world for the next several years, and even to grow in the developing world, as incomes are rising and more people are able to afford chocolates and other processed food, according a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
“The consumer eating less is influencing the sugar market, but is not crippling the industry,” says industry analyst Lucie Couillard at IBISWorld, adding that weather patterns and the amount of sugar used for global ethanol production are the main factors driving sugar prices.
But with 22 percent of Americans actively trying to reduce their sugar intake, according to recent data from Nielsen, food ingredient suppliers feel increased pressure to find new solutions.
“We are now seeing sugar reduction initiatives across nearly all of our customers both big and small,” says Jim Zallie, president and CEO of Ingredion, the Illinois-based global manufacturer of food ingredients, which has research and development initiatives focused on sugar reduction and works with clients to tailor ingredients to new needs. “In the food and drink industry, reducing sugar and using natural alternatives has become a top priority.”
Sugar itself is an inefficient ingredient when it comes to making something sweet, says Alejandro Marabi, chief technology officer at DouxMatok, who used to work at the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. Because only about 20 percent of sugar molecules consumed affect taste receptors — with the other 80 percent simply passing through with no effect on taste, mainly because they don’t dissolve before they are swallowed — large amounts are required to achieve a sweet taste, he says.
About a decade ago, the elder Baniel, who had spent more than 60 years in industrial chemistry, went to work in the kitchen of his Jerusalem home, with the goal of finding a more efficient way to deliver sugar molecules to the taste buds. Eventually he came up with a recipe: He mixed ordinary sugar with water in a double boiler on his stove to make a concentrated sugar syrup.
Then he added a small amount of cellulose, a plant fiber widely used in the food industry to add fiber to food without affecting taste, hoping that individual cellulose and sugar molecules would pair up. With the sugar riding on the cellulose, which has a larger surface area, its sweet sensation could be delivered to more taste receptors. He then dried this mixture in his oven, producing a sweet white powder.
Then he began making cakes and other deserts with the substance, finding that when using this loaded sugar, he needed about 30 percent less than when using ordinary sugar.
“I didn’t believe him at first,” recalls Eran Baniel, who brought in friends from the food industry to taste and evaluate his father’s “super” sugar. “But he really did make something that looked like sugar and tasted like sugar, but behaved differently.”
DouxMatok, founded in 2015, is the father-son team’s second startup. The pair sold their clean energy company, Virdia, to Finland’s Stora Enso in 2014 for $33 million.
DouxMatok is one of several Israeli startups developing solutions to replace or reduce sugar that have attracted international investment. Known internationally as a hub for startups, Israel has witnessed its ubiquitous technology firms being acquired over the years by giants like Google, Apple and Amazon, which are also among the hundreds of international companies with R&D facilities here.
Israel also is home to a fast-growing food and agri-tech sector, with more than 700 companies. Venture capital investments in the agri-tech sector have doubled in the past three years, with about $189 million invested in 2017, according to Startup National Central, a non-profit organization that tracks Israel’s tech economy. This year, the Israeli flavoring company Frutarom was acquired by International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. for $7 billion, and PepsiCo paid $3.2 billion for Israel-based SodaStream, which manufactures machines to make sparkling water and drinks at home, where consumers can control the amount of sugar.
“We are overwhelmed by the number of big players in the market who want to talk to us, we don’t even have the bandwidth for it now,” says Ilan Samish, founder of Amai Proteins, a company that is developing new sweet-tasting proteins that can replace sugar and is collaborating with several global companies, including Danone, PepsiCo and Merck.
Last year Samish and Hebrew University food science professor Masha Niv co-founded the Israel Sweet Science Forum, which brings together companies, academics and government regulators to discuss and collaborate on the topic of sugar reduction and how to effectively take new ideas to the global market.
In DouxMatok’s lab, downstairs from its kitchen, scientists tend double boilers filled with concentrated sugar syrup and remove trays of white crystals from ovens. The company is now refining its product so it can also be used in liquids, such as sodas, in addition to baked goods. Other challenges include finding bulking agents to make up for the volume lost from using less sugar.
“Everyone in the industry is working on reducing sugar now,” Marabi says. “And whoever develops a solution that really works, it will be huge.”