Food’s Most Dangerous Ingredient Is Getting a Healthy Makeover

A brownie cake and whipped cream beckon on a plate.

(© Farknot Architect/Adobe)

Imagine eating a slice of cake for breakfast. It's deliciously indulgent, but instead of your blood sugar spiking, your body processes all that sweetness as a healthy high-protein meal. It may sound like sci-fi, but this scenario is not necessarily far off.

"People with diabetes could especially benefit because sweet proteins don't trigger a need for insulin."

The Lowdown

An award-winning agtech startup called Amai is developing "sweet proteins," based on the molecular structure of naturally occuring exotic fruits. These new sugar substitutes could potentially replace artificial sweeteners and help people who are trying to curb their sugar intake. People with diabetes could especially benefit because sweet proteins don't trigger a need for insulin.

While there is a sweet protein currently on the market today called thaumatin, it's expensive, has a short shelf life, and is lacking in the taste department. But Amai's proteins taste 70 to 100 percent identical to the sweet ones found in nature. Once their molecular structure is designed through a sophisticated computing platform, they are made through fermentation, which is akin to brewing beer. These non-GMO proteins are over 10,000 times sweeter than sugar, which means much less needs to be produced and used.

Diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are often linked to sugar overconsumption, have been on a major upswing over the last few decades, especially in the United States. According to the CDC, 100 million adults in the United States are now living with diabetes or prediabetes, which if not treated, often leads to type 2 diabetes within five years. By 2030, scientists predict cases of diabetes in the U.S. will increase by 54 percent. If sugar proteins like the type Amai is creating become widely available, these numbers could begin to decrease.

Next Up

Amai's sweet proteins are still in the research and development stage, but the Israeli startup is raising significant funding that should help expedite the process. They're also substantially upping their production ability by expanding their facilities.

Will consumers be comfortable ingesting a lab-designed food product?

And in March, the USDA and FDA announced plans to regulate cell-cultured foods, the category in which these sugar proteins would fall, so Amai researchers are hopeful they'll have an easier path to approval once their product is market ready.

Open Questions

All this progress may sound promising, but Amai still has a long way to go before the reality of healthy cake becomes tangible. Some questions to consider: Will consumers be comfortable ingesting a lab-designed food product? Will it taste enough like real sugar?

And if some products and brands begin to adopt it, will it ever overtake the real thing in popularity and make a dent in diseases like diabetes and obesity? Only time, more research, and a lot more money will tell, but in the meantime, feel free to daydream about eating entire pints of ice cream without needing to hit the gym.

Ally Hirschlag
Ally Hirschlag is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who covers mental health, women's rights, and sustainability among other things. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and channeling her anxiety into satire. You can find more of her work and musings on Facebook and Twitter.
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