Fermentation offers new taste tech for sweeteners

A fungus from the forest floor might be the next big thing in sugar substitutes. But turning this delicacy into a staple requires the latest in fermentation technology.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 12, 2024

3 Min Read
Truffle on a cutting board.

At a Glance

  • Fermentation may help eliminate plant-based off-notes and shows potential to create low-sugar and sugar-free sweeteners.
  • Certain truffles contain a “sweet protein” said to be 2,500 times sweeter than sugar and easily digested by humans.
  • Precision fermentation can isolate and reproduce sweet proteins without requiring harvesting.

Fermentation as a process has been a part of human nutrition for thousands of years. But that doesn’t mean we’ve learned everything there is to know about the complex transformations that occur when bacteria break down the starches and sugars in food ingredients. According to Ranjan Patnaik, Ph.D., CTO at Colorado-based fermentation company MycoTechnology, we’re still barely scratching the surface.

“Fermentation as a tool to manipulate different functionalities of ingredients or feedstocks is definitely an emerging field,” Patnaik stated. “People are still trying to understand what the mechanisms are and how difficult it is going to be to scale up.”

MycoTechnology, the fermented baking company EQUII Foods, and others have seen great potential in helping eliminate unpleasant flavors and break down anti-nutrients in plant-based foods like pea protein, all while adding protein and improving digestibility.

But fermentation can do more than modify other food ingredients. As Patnaik’s team dug deeper into mushrooms the last year, they liked the flavors they found — including some surprisingly sweet ones.

Truffles: The new sweet protein

Fungi are inextricably linked in many people’s minds to savory, salty and umami flavors. But Patnaik said the most promising area of expansion for fermentation is sweetness — or more specifically, the isolation and growth of so-called “sweet proteins.”

These proteins (such as brazzein) are found in a range of fruit plants, including the West African oubli plant. A sweet protein 2,500 times sweeter than sugar is also located in the Hungarian honey truffle, a sought-after grey-white fungus that grows wild across Asia and Eastern Europe. And unlike many sugar substitutes, most sweet proteins can be broken down fully by the human digestive system.

The only problem? Being able to cultivate, harvest and process sufficient quantities of these exotic ingredients to produce them at scale. Just ask the European mushroom hunters who have been seasonally chasing sweet truffles for centuries.

In the case of sweet proteins from oubli plants, companies like Greenlab are exploring cultivating the protein in corn plants to produce the quantities needed to become a viable sugar substitute. For the honey truffle, the process is simpler. It might not even require the mushroom.

“In the wild, honey truffles take seven to 10 years to grow,” Patnaik explained. “And normally, if I wanted one, I’d have to go out at a particular time of year and hunt for it. The big breakthrough was when we discovered that we can take the gene of the protein from the truffle and put it into a brewer’s yeast kind of a process. Now we get the same protein, but we don’t need to grow the truffle anymore.”

Patnaik noted this realization allowed Myco to rapidly scale up production of its honey truffle sweetener from the experimental level to 3,000-liter fermentations. The company has also seen enough interest in its fermented flavorings and sweeteners to temporarily pivot its focus away from some of its other high-profile developments, like a massive plant-based meat operation in Oman.

“We are going 90% into this ingredient because everybody’s worried about their health, and sugar is dominating the agenda at the country level, the corporate level and the individual level,” Patnaik shared.

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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