Consumers have consistently wanted to cut down on sugar. But as more natural substitutes are being developed and appearing on store shelves, Daya Fields said people are not willing to use them to bake.
While natural substitutes are becoming popular, many tend to have a taste that is different from sugar. And, with the renewed popularity of home baking during the pandemic, that's a problem in need of a solution, said Fields, president of Purecane.
"They're always afraid to use a sugar substitute when it's game time — during that holiday cake that you're making for Thanksgiving or some kind of celebratory moment," Fields said. "That's when we were like, 'You know what? We don't want people to have to go back to sugar for these moments, these celebratory moments.' "
Fields believes that Purecane has a solution. Purecane is a sweetener brand under Amyris, a global company that uses synthetic biology to create sustainable products for beauty products and food ingredients. Purecane uses yeast to ferment sugarcane and create Reb M, a sought-after sweetener that is naturally present in stevia.
Reb M has a reputation of being the most sugar-like sweetening component in stevia, but it generally is only found in low concentrations in the plant. Purecane's proprietary technology can transform sugarcane into Reb M, which is a zero-calorie and zero-net-carbohydrate sweetener.
Amyris recently signed an agreement with ingredients giant Ingredion, which is the exclusive commercialization partner for Reb M. Under the agreement, Ingredion will take a minority ownership stake in Amyris' Reb M manufacturing facility in Brazil. The two companies also have an R&D agreement to advance the development of sustainably sourced and zero-calorie sweeteners, as well as other types of ingredients created through fermentation.
Purecane is concentrating on being a consumer-facing brand and getting in front of home bakers both on store shelves and through e-commerce, Fields said. It has won several consumer awards, including being named a finalist in Fast Company's World Changing Ideas list this year, and receiving an Amazon's Choice badge for being a product with fast delivery and high customer reviews.
Because of its great success in the consumer space, Purecane is looking to further establish itself there, Fields said. The brand is currently in talks with different retailers to get on more store shelves. But, she added, several small foodservice businesses have also expressed interest in using Purecane so they can create specialized menus for people who want less sugar or carbohydrates. The company has set up a wholesaler program to work with them as well, Fields said.
How to make a better natural sweetener
The process to get Reb M is complicated, no matter how it's done.
In stevia, Reb M is either extracted or made through a chemical conversion. In the most direct way, the leaves are steeped in hot water and the sweeteners, called glycosides, are filtered out.
Most stevia varieties don't have much naturally occurring Reb M, which means it often takes a lot of plants to get a large amount of the sweetener. PureCircle — a pioneer in the stevia space acquired by Ingredion last year — bred the StarLeaf variety to naturally contain more Reb M. Stevia producer SweeGen created a way to use an enzyme to convert the more abundant Reb D into Reb M, but has been fighting a long court battle over whether this method infringes on a PureCircle patent.
Purecane uses a proprietary fermentation method to make the sweetener, getting the same end result. Amyris creates starting cultures for the process at its offices in California, and the actual fermentation happens where the sugarcane is grown in Brazil. According to the company, the process takes one and a half to two weeks.
By making Reb M through fermented sugarcane, Purecane uses about a tenth of the agricultural area as stevia producers and 40 times less water, Fields said. The spent sugarcane is repurposed into fertilizer used on the sugarcane fields, and Purecane product packaging is made of recycled sugarcane. The company also uses carbon-neutral shipping to move product to the United States.
A sweet portfolio
Purecane currently has granulated and brown sweeteners — much like conventional sugar — as well as a powdery confectioner's product. It comes in bags, cannisters and packets, and Fields said it works in many applications.
Different natural sweeteners have their limitations, with no single one able to do everything that sugar does. Fields said Purecane dissolves well and is a good fit in both hot and cold beverages. It also has been formulated for home baking, and Fields said their food scientists have worked to mirror the taste and function of white, brown and powdered sugar.
"Anytime that you would be using sugar as part of any kind of baking recipe, you would substitute that baking sweetener," she said.
With Purecane having the potential to help consumers make healthier choices, Fields said the brand is looking at expansions beyond baking with science at the center.
New products, which Fields said could be announced later this year, are "especially for those consumers who are looking for healthy choices in other areas of their lifestyle, where calories still count, carbs still count and taste counts — and the fact that it's a clean formula."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of Amyris' agreement with Ingredion. Ingredion is the exclusive commercialization partner for Reb M and has taken a minority ownership stake in Amyris' manufacturing facility for the ingredient in Brazil.