As obesity surges, Israeli startup develops sweet protein to help cut calories
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As obesity surges, Israeli startup develops sweet protein to help cut calories

Rehovot-based Amai Proteins redesigns rare substances, much sweeter than sugar, found in equatorial belt plants; plans to produce a shandy and then other foods and drinks

Illustrative image of obesity, with a man measuring his belly sanchairat; (iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of obesity, with a man measuring his belly sanchairat; (iStock by Getty Images)

The surge in obesity levels globally – worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization — is causing food and health companies to scramble for ways to battle the glut and the gut.

One way is to decrease sugar intake, and food companies worldwide are struggling to find ways to cut the sugar content in their products but at the same time keep them tasting good. Israel’s SodaStream, which has successfully branded its fizzy drinks as a healthy alternative to super-sweet sodas, was snapped up earlier this year by US drinks giant PepsiCo Inc. for a massive $3.2 billion in cash, as a way to contend with falling demand for sugar-laden drinks.

Now, an Israeli food tech company, Rehovot-based Amai Proteins, says it has developed sweet proteins – based on those found in plants that grow along the equatorial belt — that can be used as sugar substitutes in a range of foods including sodas, yogurts, energy drinks, protein shakes, whipped cream, chocolate, spreads and syrups.

“Along the equatorial belt, from Malaysia and China to Nigeria and Cameron, tall trees capture the rays of sunlight, leaving the ground shady and dark,” Ilan Samish, the founder and CEO of Amai, said in an interview with The Times of Israel. “To survive, plants that grow in the shade need to attract animals with their fruit, so they can then spread their seeds. So these plants have developed fruits that contain sweet proteins, which are better than sugary fruits, because they taste better.”

Ilan Samish, left, the founder and CEO of Amai Proteins working in his lab (Courtesy)

Sweet proteins, he explained, are up to 3,000 times sweeter than sugar by weight, with a 4-gram teaspoon of sugar equivalent in sweetness to less than 2 milligrams of a sweet protein.

“These ultra-sweet proteins… bind to the sweet-receptor on the taste bud just like sugar but are then digested just like a protein, thus not causing an insulin response, not presenting calories and, unlike other sweeteners, they have no effect on the microbiome, liver and kidneys,” Samish said.

However, these jungle-made proteins in the jungles are produced in small amounts, and they are not all identical. They also have an aftertaste, Samish said.

Samish and his team of computational protein designers studied the DNA makeup of the natural proteins and recreated it. They also redesigned it to decrease the aftertaste and to be able to make it in greater quantities.

A model of a sweet protein developed by Amai Proteins (Courtesy)

“We have developed a new family of proteins that are 70 percent to 95% identical to the one in nature, but suited for the food market,” he said.

The protein is grown in yeast and sometimes in bacteria, and the final product has been classified by European regulators as a non-genetically modified product.

Amai, which was set up in December 2016 and which means sweet in Japanese, has received cloud-computing grants from Amazon and Google for its work.

The company, which began in The Kitchen Hub incubator of Israeli-based foodmaker Strauss, has already created a protein-sweetened soda for SodaStream with 50% to 80% less sugar content in a variety of flavors, including lemon, orange and coconut. Amai is also collaborating with Danone and PepsiCo, Samish said.

Amai Protein has developed a protein-sweetened soda for SodaStream — with 50% to 80% less sugar content — in a variety of flavors, including lemon, orange and coconut (Courtesy)

Other firms are also working on developing sweet proteins, he said. “But we have managed to solve the problem of yield, stability and taste.”

The product is now in a proof of concept stage, and Samish hopes that within two years Amai will be able to launch its first product, even before getting an external FDA regulatory approval. “The first product will be a sweet beer,” both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, he said, that tastes like a shandy – beer mixed with a carbonated lemon-lime soda.

“We prefer to test our product in a small market,” he said, and then, once FDA clearance is obtained, to move on to making products for food and beverage giants like PepsiCo, Danone, Strauss and SodaStream.

The firm has raised some $970,000 to date via the grants, the Israel Innovation Authority and The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, and is looking to raise a series A round of funding in the first quarter of next year, Samish said.

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