When we wonder what our lives will be like in the future — if we’ll be playing tennis against robots, say, or wearing self-driving jetpacks to commute — chances are few of us are imagining that we’re going to be any skinnier. Almost 40 percent of Americans are now obese, with more than 35 percent of people in seven states being chronically overweight. To put this in context: In 1985, no state had an adult obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Globally, the World Health Organization says obesity has almost tripled since 1975.
Yet one pioneering Israeli startup believes that this tide could easily be reversed. In a modest lab located in a Tel Aviv suburb, scientists at food tech outfit Amai Proteins are creating protein molecules out of a rare tropical plant that can taste thousands of times sweeter than sugar. The company claims that by fermenting these proteins in microorganisms, such as yeast, it can produce a brand-new sugar substitute without the side effects of existing alternative sweeteners, some of which have been shown to be carcinogenic or cause weight gain.
“Sugar kills more people than gunpowder every year, but scientists tend to only focus on the diseases it causes,” says biochemist Ilan Samish, who formed Amai Proteins two years ago. “I am on a mission to cure the food. We are not making protein identical to proteins found in nature. We are redesigning the proteins.”
At the moment, Samish and his team are on a sort of sugar high themselves, having in January completed a wholly new protein that he excitedly calls “the world’s sweetest substance.” It is derived from the reengineered DNA of a plant found in a shady patch of Malaysia, the name of which Samish would not disclose, and is “by weight, 16,000 times as sweet as sugar.” A barely visible 0.375 milligrams of this sweet protein is equivalent to a teaspoon of sugar.
There are many compelling reasons why using such ultra-sweet proteins instead of sugar would be much healthier for us, Samish explains. “They bind to the sweet receptor on our taste buds but are digested in our upper GI tracts like every other protein. They don’t initiate blood sugar or insulin response. They don’t make us fat by changing the microbiome, the huge army of microbes in our guts, in the same way that sugar does.”
“Sugar kills more people than gunpowder every year, but scientists tend to only focus on the diseases it causes. ”
Existing alternative sweeteners — whether artificial, like aspartame, or natural, like stevia-leaf extract — also carry health risks, according to Samish. All these sugar substitutes comprise “small molecules,” which essentially pass through the body after being digested by the liver and kidneys, sometimes causing harmful compounds or even triggering higher blood glucose levels. Moreover, some people who opt for zero-calorie sweeteners can still pile on the pounds because the presence of these small molecules among the microbiome disrupts their metabolism.
“The bottom line is that 99.99 percent of all proteins are healthy,” Samish says. “A regular-sized person should eat 56 grams of protein a day, according to U.S. guidelines. Most of us eat more than that, so a few milligrams more makes no difference.”
Nearly everyone, he reckons, could enjoy protein-sweetened sodas, dairy products, and even premium chocolate bars without needing to worry about diabetes or obesity. Which is why Samish’s tiny startup is attracting the attention of food conglomerates from around the world. “Our silver bullet,” he says, “is we have produced something healthy, cheap, and actually tastes of sugar.”