A few weeks ago, my wife made some delicious cookies. These cookies were so addictively good that I ate two of them that evening, then woke up in the middle of the night to eat two more. I paid the price in the morning, however with a bad headache – the sugar hangover. I later discovered that each one had 7g of sucrose inside.
I assume part of the reason I had such a hard time staying away from these cookies was that they were packed with sugar, making them irresistible. Maybe you have a sweet tooth as well and recognize this feeling? Have you ever had something so deliciously sweet that you just can’t keep away?
Well, your sweet tooth is not all your fault, sugar is largely to blame for this. The simple crystalline sucrose molecule can actually produce a sort of physiological “dependency” as it releases endogenous opioids and dopamine in your brain.
Unfortunately, sugar consumption has been linked to unhealthy weight gain, and to obesity in particular. Although obesity is a multi-factorial disease that depends on genetics, lifestyle, and metabolism, evidence suggests that diets high in added sugar promote the development of obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of adult obesity in the United States in 2017-2018 was 42%. 42% is an incredibly high number. What’s even scarier is that this number has been increasing steadily for the past 20 years, and continues to do so.
Trends in obesity in the U.S. Since 1999, the percentage of obese Americans has increased from 30% to 42%. Many people may avoid sugar substitutes because they taste inferior to real sugar. Purecane could help address this challenge. U.S. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL (CDC)
The price of obesity in the United States isn’t small, either. It’s estimated that the annual health care cost of obesity-related illnesses is $190 billion, representing ~21% of the annual medical spendings in the United States.
It is evident that a lower-sugar diet is key to weight management and healthy living, but we all need to satisfy our cravings once in a while. And if the addictive nature of sugar makes it hard to stop ourselves, is there a way for us to have our cake and eat it too? The answer is yes, and the biotechnology upstart Amyris has the solution.
Amyris supports a sustainable future by producing a wide array of molecules from engineered organisms and renewably-sourced carbon from plants.. They are committed to their “No Compromise” vision of a world in which both people and the planet benefit through better sustainable products. Their portfolio includes antimalarial drugs, clean skincare products, and now, their latest “No Compromise” product: the zero-calorie sweetener, Purecane.
Back in 2016, Amyris CEO John Melo felt that it was time for the company to have another growth spurt. On the lookout for the next big thing, Melo realized that big food and beverage companies were pursuing a new strategy of sugar reduction. This was in response to a huge consumer backlash against not just sugar and its negative effects on our bodies, but also against chemically-derived sweeteners.
You have probably tried a few zero-calorie sweeteners before, like Sweet’nLow, or Splenda’s stevia. Some consumers report that these zero-calorie substitutes taste “off.” Melo explains that many sweeteners are made with extracts from the leaves of the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana). The compounds responsible for stevia’s sweet taste are steviol glucosides, which are up to 500 times sweeter than sugar. When these compounds are extracted directly from the stevia leaf, you often end up with small impurities that can impart that “off-flavor” to the final product. Given the rising obesity rate in the United States, undesirable off-flavors were clearly not helping consumers transition to healthier calorie-free sweeteners.
Melo saw an opportunity. His team initially was reluctant to work on complicated sweetener molecules like rebaudioside M (Reb-M), one of the super-sweet steviol glucosides in the stevia plant. This Reb-M molecule is only present in low concentrations (less than 2%) in the stevia plant, and it is difficult to isolate. But the Amyris scientists developed a unique method of making Reb-M using fermentation, the basic process we use to make beer, wine, and bread. By using a yeast culture to ferment sustainably-sourced sugarcane, Amyris was able to make very pure, sustainable Reb-M.
Even better, Amyris’s fermentation method uses 10 times less land than traditional manufacturers who still isolate glucosides directly from stevia. The final Purecane product is 300-500 times sweeter than normal sugar, with no carbohydrates, no artificial chemicals, and a zero glycemic index.
Amyris’s Purecane offers a healthier, more guilt-free, and sweeter world—made with biology. AMYRIS
I recently tasted Purecane myself. I was skeptical at first, expecting the off-flavor of other zero-calorie sweeteners. But to my surprise, it tasted very similar to regular sugar. And I’m not the only one amazed by this product: very strong early sales earned Purecane a place on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” category, and Amyris continues to expand distribution into the $9 billion non-sugar sweetener market.
Although the Reb-M molecule project at first seemed like a challenge too hard to crack, Amyris succeeded by taking inspiration from the greatest engineer there is: biology.
“When you come across an amazing molecule that exists in nature with the best properties, and you know you can make this molecule at higher purity, higher quantity, for a lower cost and in a more sustainable way, that doesn’t seem like a wild bet to me,” Melo says.
It will be exciting to follow Amyris’s Purecane journey towards a healthier, more guilt-free, and sweeter world. In the meantime, with many of us largely confined to home these days, more will want to bake a sugar-free, perfectly sweet banana bread with some Purecane baking sweetener.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Stephanie Michelsen for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Amyris—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.2