Forget artificial sweeteners and other not-quite sugar substitutes: how one startup is reinventing sugar

Forget artificial sweeteners and other not-quite sugar substitutes: how one startup is reinventing sugar
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I’m sitting in a lab in Petach-Tikva, a neighborhood northeast of Tel Aviv. In front of me are three food items on a platter: A plain cookie, chocolate spread, and a piece of solid chocolate. I’m told there’s something very special about these otherwise common treats.

I pick them up one-by-one and take a nibble, but struggle to say anything illuminating. And that’s the best thing about these foods, I quickly realize. They are a multi-billion-dollar idea precisely because they taste so normal.

What’s special is that these three items—the cookie, the spread, and the chocolate—were made with 40%, 40%, and 30% less sugar respectively than the conventional versions you can find at just about any grocery or convenience store in the Western world. And no, they’re not made with artificial sweeteners or alternatives like stevia, but with the most common mineral on the planet. And this is a big deal, because it perhaps solves one of the biggest problems the global food industry has grappled with for decades.

Welcome to DouxMatok, the company that will soon be inside all your favorite treats.

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Of sand and sugar

The harsh reality is that consuming lots of sugar is bad for our health. Nowadays, it’s being linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Increasingly, health advocates have pushed for major food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar they use in their name-brand foods, but it’s a tough problem to tackle. After all, people love sweet food. Some companies have tried to solve the sugar problem by turning to other substances, such as Splenda, aspartame, saccharine, and stevia, but those have fallen out of favor for health reasons or because they wind up changing ever-so-slightly the tastes of popular food products. “Good food—great tasting food—makes people happy,” Eran Baniel, the company’s CEO, explains. “What we try to do is to keep people happy but save them the need to resist temptation, which many can’t.”

The company name DouxMatok marries words from both French and Hebrew. “Doux” which denotes “double” is connected to the Hebrew word “matok,” which translates to “sweet.” Double sweet. And it’s that aspect of delivering a super-sweetness that sits at the core of the technology. As Baniel explains it, imagine taking a bite of cake. More than 80% of the sugar in every bite will go straight down your gullet without you ever tasting it. The remaining 20% will find its way to your tongue’s taste receptors, delivering the sweetness you crave before your saliva washes it down into your stomach as well.

As it turns out, sugar molecules are really bad at finding our taste buds, and even when they do they’re not very good at clinging to them. It’s for this reason that food companies load so much sugar into the colorful array of products that line the shelves of supermarkets. More sugar increases the likelihood that a super-sweet sensation will be enjoyed by the person who’s eating.

DouxMatok decided to figure out how to make sugar—real sugar—more efficient. And it found an answer by looking down, turning directly to the earth and using silica, the most common mineral on the planet.

It’s basically food-grade powdered sand, Baniel explains, something found in all sorts of foods we already eat and the mineral waters we drink. But when silica is dissolved into a liquid mixture that contains sugar, it can be dehydrated and then pulverized into a powder that looks a lot like table sugar.

On a molecular level, silica operates something like a public bus. Covered in all sorts of craters and holes, you can load sugar molecules onto the silica and into a recipe for, say, cookies. When a person takes a bite of the cookie, the silica offers a really good transport system to our taste receptors. And it’s great at sticking to our taste buds too.

“The passenger gets a chance to stay by the target a little longer, and in being there, more sugar molecules visit the receptors and you get the perception of sweetness that is disproportionate to the amount of sugar in the product,” Baniel explains.

In short, by using silica as a sugar carrier, DouxMatok has found a way to use 40% less sugar in food products while delivering the same—or in some cases a greater—level of sweetness.

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Founding a kingmaker

In 2014, Baniel and his father, Avraham, the company’s centenarian founder, took primitive samples of their work to Strauss, one of the largest food product manufacturers in Israel.

A group from the company sat down, listened as the two Baniels explained the science behind their work, and then participated in a blind taste-test.

“In terms of business and impact, what is the meaning of what you’ve just tasted?” Baniel recalls asking them. “And they said something that really paved the way for DouxMatok. They said: ‘In the food industries there are two acute problems. The first is sugar, and the other is salt. Whoever can solve one or the other is king.’”

Within a few weeks DouxMatok was incorporated.

Right now, the product only works in baked goods. The clusters of silica and sugar break apart and become ineffective when applied to liquids. But the company has invested heavily in an R&D initiative to figure out how to incorporate it into beverages, such as sodas and juices.

Even without access to the beverage market, there’s lots of room for DouxMatok to disrupt the European sweet market. More than three million tons of sugar are used in European chocolate annually. The global baked goods market was valued at about $360 billion in 2018 and has been forecast to grow to as much as $390 billion by 2022, according to market analysis firm Koncept Analytics. By comparison, the global non-alcoholic beverage market is valued at close to $1 trillion.

“There is a queue of well over one hundred companies, most of them you know very well, that are waiting to work with us or are already working with our sugars,” Baniel says.

The startup announced in July 2018 that it was partnering with Europe’s largest sugar producer, Südzucker, to commercialize its invention. DouxMatok has already broken ground on a large-scale processing facility in Germany that is scheduled to go online this summer, fundamentally transforming the company by boosting its potential output from kilos to tons. And the demand for DouxMatok’s sugar, once it can produce a lot of it, is already huge.

“What’s going on in the food industry these days, it’s huge disruption,” Baniel says, noting demand from consumers and health groups across the Western world for companies to reduce the sugar in their processed foods. “The ground is trembling at their feet. They have to revisit their recipes. They have to find a way, and the only way they can resolve it is if they give people the taste that they like.”

In truth, DouxMatok is just getting started, and Baniel isn’t relaxing his focus on innovation. For one thing, removing sugar from a product leaves a lot of space to fill with something else.

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The next innovation

Baniel interrupts our conversation. He stands up and excuses himself from the room. He’s going to retrieve something—some new product—and he’s eager to show it off.

He returns cradling a plastic Tupperware container containing two cookies, each individually sealed in plastic wrap. He pulls one out and slides it across the table.

“Go ahead! It won’t kill you, I promise,” he says with a smile.

I unwrap the cookie and take a bite. It’s a traditional Jewish-Morroccan treat, with an early buttery taste that pillows into a soft and airy sweetness.

“We replaced the sugar, the 40% that we reduced, with half of it by fiber and half of it by hummus chickpea protein,” he says.

The resulting cookie has the protein content of an entire egg, he explains, and a richness in fiber that is virtually unheard of among the usual lineup of cookie products in stores. Chickpea concentrate provided the added protein. Chickaree root concentrate was the source of fiber. This is the next phase of DouxMatok’s mission. Reducing sugar in recipes literally creates space, which impacts how much of a physical mixture is created. Baniel wants to figure out healthy ways to fill the physical space gained in each recipe, and he’s hired five people to focus on how to incorporate both fiber and protein.

In October 2018, the family received a letter in the mail from the office of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. DouxMatok was named as the winner of the prime minister’s innovation prize, a prestigious award that was presented before Israeli leadership, Eric Schmidt of Google fame, the vice president of China, and many others.

“I had the privilege of accompanying my father to receive the prize for the company, which had the whole place standing up in ovation because they’ve never given a prize for innovation to someone more than 100 years old,” he said.

Today, Avraham takes a backseat in the company. He still talks with his son about the operations of DouxMatok, but the responsibilities and baton of running it into this next global phase have been passed to the next generation. And Baniel finds himself one of the innovation leaders in a nation that continues to make a mark on the global stage for its technological prowess, in food and beyond.

“The power of innovation in this country is mind-blowing,” he says.