Brazzein, a protein that is calorie-free and up to 2,000 times sweeter than sugar, was discovered in the oubli fruit native to Africa in 1989.
Given brazzein's health profile and sweetness, which is said to have no off tastes, companies have been hoping to bring it to market for more than a decade. However, extracting the sweetener is difficult, especially since it is only present in the fruit in minuscule amounts. Through its partnership with biotechnology company Conagen, Sweegen has announced it will be bringing brazzein to the market this year.
Sweegen hasn't released many details on its upcoming brazzein products. But Casey Lippmeier, Conagen's vice president for innovation, said it has many uses in the food and beverage sector. As manufacturers are looking for options to replace sugar and increase their products' health profile, while at the same time angling for options that don't impact product flavoring, a wide array of natural sweeteners are being deployed.
"Brazzein is just yet another weapon in that toolkit," Lippmeier said. "It has its own unique flavor profiles that perform differently in different matrices. ...Even when you blend them, for instance, with other sweeteners, you can get a better match to table sugar if that's your goal, or just a better overall flavor."
Conagen, which partners with Sweegen to make its enzyme-produced Reb M sweetener, is using a similar method to produce brazzein. Lippmeier said that Conagen has spent four or five years working on a platform that could produce proteins and peptides identical to those found in nature. Using a fermentation-based platform to create proteins and peptides, Lippmeier said, is a bit more difficult than the company's approach to creating molecules like Reb M, which is known as the most sugar-like sweetener found in stevia.
With this approach, Lippmeier said that Conagen has been able to create a large amount of brazzein and is able to produce it at scale. At Conagen's most active plant in China and a newer facility in Eastern Europe, he said the company is able to create all of the Conagen products and the Sweegen sweeteners that its customers around the world need.
Brazzein has many desirable qualities for use as a sweetener. As a protein, it has no calories. It's heat and acid stable, and with zero glycemic index, it is suitable for diabetics. Brazzein is also easily soluble, meaning it can work in beverages.
Not much brazzein is required to sweeten something, though Lippmeier said the ingredient is designed to be used in conjunction with other sweeteners and ingredients. After all, sugar has functional qualities — including bulking, browning and mouthfeel enhancement. A small amount of brazzein may hit the taste metric, but not performance-related ones. Ana Arakelian, who leads public relations for both Sweegen and Conagen, said the former creates proprietary sweetener blends for its customers, and doesn't always sell a pure sweetener ingredient.
Brazzein has been one of Conagen's priority ingredients, Lippmeier said, but the company is working on other sweeteners and proteins often used in preservatives made through similar methods. He declined to share details and timing on these products.
Sweegen's brazzein ingredients truly are natural sweeteners, but they are produced through science. As consumers are more interested in clean labels and more natural ingredients, Lippmeier said that synthetic biology methods like those used by Conagen are creating better products. He noted that a lot of the more traditional processed ingredients in food are offshoots of the petrochemical industry, which is losing its popularity among consumers.
Lippmeier said that Brazzein is the perfect example of an ingredient that can only be brought to consumers through synthetic biology. There's no way to produce enough of it by physically harvesting the fruit and extracting the sweetener, he said.
"This is what the beauty of synthetic biology is: It allows you to source things from nature that really can't economically be supplied," he said.