In the Future, Your Food Will Be Sweetened With Protein
How a network of startups and scientists are moving to use cutting-edge tech to fight the obesity epidemic
When we wonder what our lives will be like in the future — if we’ll be playing tennis against robots, say, or wearing self-driving jetpacks to commute — chances are few of us are imagining that we’re going to be any skinnier. Almost 40 percent of Americans are now obese, with more than 35 percent of people in seven states being chronically overweight. To put this in context: In 1985, no state had an adult obesity rate higher than 15 percent. Globally, the World Health Organization says obesity has almost tripled since 1975.
Yet one pioneering Israeli startup believes that this tide could easily be reversed. In a modest lab located in a Tel Aviv suburb, scientists at food tech outfit Amai Proteins are creating protein molecules out of a rare tropical plant that can taste thousands of times sweeter than sugar. The company claims that by fermenting these proteins in microorganisms, such as yeast, it can produce a brand-new sugar substitute without the side effects of existing alternative sweeteners, some of which have been shown to be carcinogenic or cause weight gain.
“Sugar kills more people than gunpowder every year, but scientists tend to only focus on the diseases it causes,” says biochemist Ilan Samish, who formed Amai Proteins two years ago. “I am on a mission to cure the food. We are not making protein identical to proteins found in nature. We are redesigning the proteins.”
At the moment, Samish and his team are on a sort of sugar high themselves, having in January completed a wholly new protein that he excitedly calls “the world’s sweetest substance.” It is derived from the reengineered DNA of a plant found in a shady patch of Malaysia, the name of which Samish would not disclose, and is “by weight, 16,000 times as sweet as sugar.” A barely visible 0.375 milligrams of this sweet protein is equivalent to a teaspoon of sugar.
There are many compelling reasons why using such ultra-sweet proteins instead of sugar would be much healthier for us, Samish explains. “They bind to the sweet receptor on our taste buds but are digested in our upper GI tracts…