Some new food companies want consumers to know how healthy their products are. Others want to telegraph their sustainability credentials.
And then there's The Supplant Company, which can communicate both messages. Supplant takes fibers from discarded parts of plants — including corn cobs, straw or wheat bran — and breaks them up into naturally occurring sugars. These sugars metabolize like fiber but sweeten like sucrose, though with less intensity.
As Supplant slowly enters the market, founder and CEO Tom Simmons said there's a bigger story to tell consumers about its product.
"We're really trying to get that story out about how we make this ingredient, where it comes from, why that means it's healthy and safe and good and great — but also why that means it's sustainable and ecological, and can actually contribute to big global issues around feeding the world and around climate change," Simmons said.
Supplant isn't alone in bringing a new type of sweetener to the table. Sugar Foods is offering its new Reb M and sugar combo, N'Robed Sugar Crystals, to foodservice customers. The product, created for drinks, is made of sugar crystals that are lightly coated with Reb M, a naturally occurring sweetener that was first identified in stevia. The Reb M coating, which comes from a form of the glycoside that was created through fermentation, adds more intensity in fewer calories to the sweetener, said Sugar Foods Director of Marketing Krista Locke.
"There's a lot of people that are trying to reduce their sugar intake," Locke said. "It was an exciting ingredient to be able to play with and figure out that there's a way to offer sugar in a better way."
Reducing waste and sugar, all in one
With a doctorate in molecular plant science from the University of Edinburgh, Simmons closely studied the fibers in materials like corn cobs that are produced in abundance but have low value in the food system.
From a chemistry perspective, these plant fibers are made up of long chains of sugars that are bound tightly together, he said. In basic terms, what The Supplant Company does is break these long chains into individual sugars. Its Supplant ingredient is a white powder that can be used instead of sugar in nonliquid applications.
Simmons said there are a few steps to turning plant fibers into sweetener. First, the company grinds the plant material into powder. Then, it uses an enzyme derived from fungi to help the sugars break free. Finally, the ingredient goes though a standard processing step to remove any trace amounts of enzymes or undesirable minerals.
Supplant was designed for baking applications, and Simmons said it has the same browning, bulking and structural properties as sugar. Historically, these have been some of the most difficult functions to replicate in sugar replacements. Simmons said there are several options for sugar-free beverages, but it's much more difficult to bake a cake without actual sugar.
Simmons said not only does Supplant get the function right, but it also tastes like sugar.
"It's got a sort of mild neutral sweetness," Simmons said. "It's less sweet, but the nice thing about it is there's no weird aftertaste. It is a sugar. ...It's not like a stevia ... or a lot of the high-intensity sweeteners."
Because Supplant is less sweet, substituting it one-for-one for sugar could result in a product that looks right, but tastes a bit off. Adding more Supplant to a recipe to make it taste the same would impact the way the finished product comes out, since sugar takes on many roles in baked goods. Simmons said careful reformulations, however, have resulted in products made with Supplant that taste like their sugar-laden counterparts.
As a newer entrant to the sugar replacement category, Supplant is working on its scale and rollout. Simmons said the ingredient has received self-affirmed generally recognized as safe status, meaning it can be used in products throughout the United States. The company currently has a few partners using Supplant in their products, including regional bakeries Cookie Fix in Alabama and You're a Cookie in Illinois, and Arizona ice cream maker Sweet Republic. Supplant has also partnered with Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller to create dessert items made with the sweetener at The French Laundry and Bouchon Bakery in California, and Per Se in New York City. Keller and Supplant are also working together on chocolate bars sold online.
Simmons is still considering whether Supplant will stay focused on the business-to-business realm, or design a consumer ingredient.
"We're really trying to get that story out about how we make this ingredient, where it comes from, why that means it's healthy and safe and good and great — but also why that means it's sustainable and ecological, and can actually contribute to big global issues around feeding the world and around climate change."
Founder and CEO, The Supplant Company
Currently, Simmons said he can make "double-digit tons" of the sweetener — "enough to do some damage [to competition], especially on the immediate rollout for sure, and scale with some fairly decent-sized partners." It's not yet enough to disrupt the sugar industry, but Supplant is just getting started, he said. The company currently has a two-step manufacturing process — the first phase takes place in a European facility and the final processing and bagging happens in Texas — but the company is working on figuring out the best supply chain and scaling pathway. Simmons expects Supplant to fully manufacture the product in the United States soon, and its cost — which is currently high given the small scale — to come down.
Regardless, the company has already received high-profile backing, aside from the partnerships with Keller. Last month, Supplant announced it raised more than $27 million. Investors include some more traditional sources — Manta Ray, EQT, Khosla, Felicis, Coatue and Y Combinator — as well as celebrities. Culinary influencer Ayesha Curry and basketball player Chris Paul also invested in the company. Simmons said Curry and Paul are both interested in the issues around sugar consumption and upcycling, and they were mutually interested in what Supplant does and means. He said it's helpful to have people with larger voices involved with the company, able to spread the word.
Reb M and sugar make a sweet combo
Locke from Sugar Foods said the company has worked extensively with sugar replacements, from Sweet'N Low to stevia, as many people try to limit or avoid sugar. More than two out of five consumers say they seek out natural sweeteners, according to an International Food Information Council study cited by Sugar Foods.
Reb M — short for Rebaudioside M — is one of many sweetening components found naturally in the stevia plant. Sweetener companies have been working to isolate Reb M, which is more sugar-like and does not have the bitter aftertaste some consumers associate with stevia. Because of the way Reb M is metabolized, it has no calories, but as a component of stevia, it is much sweeter than sugar.
Ingredient company Amyris has a process to create Reb M without stevia through fermentation. The company has partnered with Ingredion on commercialization, and has a consumer-facing sweetener brand called Purecane.
N'Robed Sugar Crystals combine Reb M created through fermentation with sugar to make a sweetener that meets consumer preferences, Locke said. Sugar adds both sweetness and mouthfeel to beverages. Consumer testing has shown that mouthfeel is as important as sweetness, Locke said, but most alternative sweeteners lack in this area. N'Robed Sugar Crystals deliver the mouthfeel because they're made with sugar, but much less is needed to get the same degree of sweetness because of the Reb M, according to the company.
"If you keep some of that sugar, it's going to deliver a very similar taste," Locke said. "It's imperceptible, through our consumer research at least. ...Consumers couldn't tell the difference and would oftentimes prefer the N'Robed Sugar. Keeping some sugar there was beneficial."
Sugar Foods is not the creator of N'Robed Sugar Crystals, but sells it primarily to foodservice operators. It's available in packets, canisters and in bulk. While there is a higher cost to produce the ingredient, Locke said it actually presents a cost savings to businesses because not as much of the sweetener is needed.
Consumer-facing N'Robed products are designed to present a sweetness equivalency. Packets of N'Robed Sugar, for example, have less sweetener than packets of sugar, but the sweetness is the same. So a consumer who takes two sugars in their coffee will also take two N'Robed sugars.
While N'Robed works well in beverages, Locke said Sugar Foods is also exploring how well it performs in other applications. The company has so far concentrated on the beverage market, she said, but N'Robed may also have a future in baking.