CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — There was no ribbon to cut, but Bonumose CEO Ed Rogers and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin officially opened the company’s new manufacturing and R&D facility with something sweet.
A barrel of the rare sugar tagatose, which Bonumose is now producing in large quantities, was at the front of a conference room, where the announcement was made, with a gigantic spoon next to it.
“We’ll take the first spoonful,” Rogers said, as he and Youngkin dipped into the barrel, scooped out the tagatose, and dropped it back in as the room of guests applauded.
The sweetener was white and crystalline, much like the sugar Bonumose is hoping to start replacing, both as an ingredient used by manufacturers and as a sweetener consumers use to improve the taste of their beverages and for home baking.
Bonumose is on its way to building up its supply of the rare sugar and getting it to manufacturers. Although the $27.7 million, 50,000 square foot facility had its official opening ceremony on March 2, Rogers said the plant has actually been in operation since December. It’s currently operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said, and production is ramping up to full capacity.
ASR Group, which is the world’s largest refiner and marketer of cane sugar, was a key investor in Bonumose and is currently selling its tagatose to manufacturers. James Kappas, ASR’s vice president of specialty ingredients, said interest in tagatose has so far been deep and widespread, coming from a variety of different types of product manufacturers.
Hershey was also a key investor to help Bonumose build out its plant. In 2021, the confectioner unveiled a detailed strategy to offer more better-for-you candy options and grow in the space. Part of this commitment was co-leading Bonumose’s funding round that allowed it to build out the new facility, which company leaders have written can advance its work with rare sugars.
With Bonumose’s manufacturing facility in operation and influential people in the food industry spreading the word about tagatose, Rogers said the future is bright for the sweetener.
“It works in everything, and it's got this great flavor to it,” Rogers said. “And then it's functional. One of the things that the sugar guys say is that it works more like sugar than any other alternatives.”
What is tagatose?
Tagatose is found in small quantities in nature, making it a natural — but rare — sweetener. It naturally occurs in some fruits, including apples and oranges, and in some dairy products.
Structurally, it’s a lot like sucrose. It can be used in a variety of applications, from baking to ice cream to confectionery to sweetening beverages. It’s also 90% as sweet as sugar, meaning a similar amount can be used in recipes.
Tagatose differs from sucrose in important ways. It has fewer calories — 1.5 calories per gram of tagatose, versus four calories per gram of sugar.
It also has more distinct health-related functions. Tagatose doesn’t spike blood sugar levels, and has been found to even reduce them when consumed with other foods. It doesn’t cause tooth decay, and has been found to break up dental plaque. It also has prebiotic effects, feeding healthy gut bacteria with dietary fiber.
Tagatose has been shown in studies to be as effective at managing hyperglycemia as diabetes drugs, as a toxin inhibitor for people with a gut pathogen, and can be made into a treatment for sickle cell anemia.
Bonumose uses enzymes to convert other more plentiful ingredients into tagatose. On the day of the opening, the company was using maltodextrin from cornstarch to make the sweetener, but Tal Elseth, Bonumose’s engineering manager who led tours of the manufacturing facility, said that they could also operate with pea or potato starch.
In remarks at the facility opening, Rogers said Bonumose can enable healthier and affordable food that tastes as good as products consumers love today. It’s a pressing need, he said. The global market value of the food system has been estimated at $9 trillion, while a decade-old estimate of the amount spent on diet-related diseases is $11 trillion. Rogers said the cost differential is astonishing; food is making people sick.
Because the Bonumose facility is close to Thomas Jefferson’s famed home of Monticello, Rogers borrowed from the third president and primary Declaration of Independence author’s famous writings, declaring truths the company holds to be self-evident. People will eat healthier food when it tastes as good as the items they love. Less spending on diet-related health care will lead to lower prices on everything across the globe. And people will be happier and more productive if they aren’t battling diet-related illnesses.
“This is our purpose,” he said. “This is what drives us forward, and in a time when there are wars and rumors of wars, and pandemics and panics, we hope this is good news.”
How the tagatose is made
A loud hum of machinery fills the air in the part of Bonumose’s facility where the tagatose is made. It’s full of massive tanks and machines that convert the maltodextrin into tagatose, then purify and crystalize the rare sugar into a form in which it can be used.
Shouting above the noises, Elseth said on a tour that the plant will make about three metric tons of tagatose each day — about 6,615 pounds — when it is running at full capacity.
From an equipment standpoint, Rogers said the facility is similar to that of a plant making high fructose corn syrup. The choice of this kind of equipment was deliberate.
“We think that will help us scale because it's not like we have to invent a whole supply chain,” Rogers said.
The facility had been a paper warehouse, which Bonumose gutted and rebuilt to accommodate its technology and meet food manufacturing requirements.
The action begins in massive mixing tanks, where the maltodextrin is combined with water. Elseth said it moves to other equipment, where it is pasteurized and spun in a centrifuge to remove impurities.
Next, the starch moves to the tanks where Bonumose’s technology converts it into tagatose. It goes into the top as a starchy solution, Elseth said, and it passes through beads imbued with Bonumose’s enzymes. By the time the solution works its way to the bottom, what comes out is a watery tagatose solution.
From there, the tagatose solution gets purified. It passes through a fine filter that catches any impurities. It goes through a tank that acts similar to a water softener, attracting any charged particles.
The next stop is an evaporator, where the extra water is removed. Elseth said that Bonumose captures the water that is evaporated out of the tagatose solution, and it’s reused at the beginning of the process, when water is added to maltodextrin.
Even more purification comes next. Any non-tagatose sugars that were made through the enzymatic process are removed, so the substance that remains is 100% tagatose. And then it’s heated, crystalized and dried, making a finished product that can be used in the same ways as sugar.
When the facility is running at capacity, Elseth said it will take about five days for maltodextrin to make the full journey through the equipment to come out as tagatose crystals at the end.
Things are getting sweeter
Hershey has been one of Bonumose’s big backers, co-leading the funding round that made the plant possible. Jordana Swank, director of technology development and futures R&D for Hershey, said that the company has been excited to partner with Bonumose.
“We've seen this investment as an opportunity to enable rare sugars to have both more accessibility and more affordability for consumers so they have better-for-you choices and snacks,” she said at the facility opening.
Hershey has not committed to making a tagatose-sweetened chocolate, but Swank said that the company is invested in its better-for-you platform, and will continue to focus there.
Kappas, who will be showcasing Bonumose’s tagatose offerings at Natural Products Expo West this week, said the interest level in the sweetener will likely climb as companies and investors in the trendy foods space have the chance to learn about the sweetener. ASR will be offering people at the convention samples of vegan cookies made with 50% tagatose and 50% sugar — similar to the 50-50 tagatose and sugar cookies given out at Bonumose’s facility opening — to demonstrate how well the sweetener works.
ASR plans to position tagatose as an alternative sweetener for all needs, Kappas said. It can be used with sugar or another sweetener, or it can be used on its own.
Rogers said that Bonumose also plans to make a consumer-facing tagatose brand — both in small packets for sweetening beverages in foodservice outlets and coffee stations, and available to consumers for home use in larger quantities. This brand will be 100% tagatose and is likely to enter the market later this year, Rogers said. He added it will play an important role in consumer acceptance.
“When they taste it in its pure form — just like the way we make it, not blended with anything —l they will, I think, draw the conclusion that, ‘Wow, this tastes a lot like regular sugar,’” Rogers said. “They can bake with it, use it in coffee, cereal, etc.
“And so we think that'll be a way for us to show we've got nothing to hide,” he continued. “You can be good with this, and we think that will make it more comfortable for consumers when they see it on an ingredients list.”
The biggest impediment to widespread adoption of tagatose at this point is the FDA’s ruling last year that it must be classified on ingredient labels as an “Added Sugar.” The rare sugar allulose, which has only 0.4 calories per gram, has been exempted from that designation, but tagatose has not because FDA has said its caloric load is significantly larger.
Rogers said Bonumose is working with the FDA to overturn that decision based on the many more positive qualities of tagatose. Swank said that Hershey will continue to work with FDA to encourage label exemptions for sweeteners, which could help consumers make better food choices.
Kappas said ASR is also advocating for FDA to take another look at the ruling, but it’s been a huge issue for potential tagatose customers. Some are confident the ruling will be overturned and are already reformulating products. Some want a final ruling from FDA before committing to use it. And others are moving forward, planning to play up other strengths of tagatose on labeling, like the fact that it is keto-friendly.
ASR is predicting that tagatose will be widely used, Kappas said. They are already planning to work with Bonumose on a second plant to make the sweetener, which Kappas said could be online late next year. Increasing the scale of tagatose — and also potentially adding a line that can use enzymes to convert starches into allulose, which Bonumose has also been working on — can decrease the price and have positive public health benefits down the road.
“One of the things that's a big appeal to us and to the market is that tagatose has broad appeal across all of those sectors,” Kappas said. “And a lot of that is because of, I’ll call it the functionality. The fact that it flows and handles and tastes like sugar.”