A start-up company is working to get a sugar substitute to market, which if approved, they say will provide a healthier alternative particularly for diabetics. And it’s made from unused production byproducts.

Biofect Innovations won the Agri-Tech Pitch Competition in Guelph this year. The company has found a way to turn things like lactose, starch and glycerol into a protein-based sweetener called brazzein, which is several thousand times sweeter than sugar, and they say it’s healthier too.

“The core mission for us is to create something that doesn’t just satisfy the sweet tooth, it also needs to satisfy the health,” said Christian Delos Santos, the co-founder and CEO.

Their method won them the prize worth $10,000 in March as part of the Agri-Tech Pitch Competition that was hosted by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph’s Research Innovation Office.

“I really do think this is a supplement to help people manage their health where if you have the cravings of something sweet you don’t necessarily have to settle, where we’re providing you something that is satisfying but at the same time healthy for you.”

Delos Santos explained that despite the sweetness of brazzein, it has a taste that’s distinctive from sugar, but said that it’s still unlike other alternatives out there.

“On the sweetness curve, it acts differently and doesn’t have the bitter notes per se but it does have its own unique properties that are pleasant,” said Delos Santos.

A headshot of Christian Delos Santos, the co-founder and CEO of Biofect Innovations.
Christian Delos Santos is the co-founder and CEO of Biofect Innovations. (Submitted by Christian Delos Santos)

Proving its safety

Currently, there are 23 Health Canada approved sweeteners, but some of the data isn’t necessarily conclusive.

For example, although aspartame is approved in Canada, the data around its use is still being analyzed. When it comes to another alternative called stevia, Health Canada doesn’t have a “definitive opinion” about the safety of it in foods due to “incomplete” data, and it doesn’t require approval since it’s “not considered to be food additives or novel foods,” Health Canada indicated on their website .

Brazzein has yet to be reviewed or approved by Health Canada, but one reason Delos Santos believes it is safe is that it says its protein cousin — thaumatin — has been eaten by way of a West African fruit, oubli berry, for many years.

It’s also a protein and he believes that consuming it would be no different than eating chicken meat, but proving its safety is the next step for the company.

Aside from getting through the regulatory hurdles, they also need to be able to produce it on a larger scale.

“[Proteins are] not normally sweet, but this is so unique because it is sweet,” Delos Santos said. “It binds to the same sort of sweet receptors on your tongue that tells your brain that you’re eating something sweet, so this is special in that senses.”

Sustainability potential

Andrew Spring is the Laurier Center for Sustainable Food Systems director at Wilfrid Laurier University, and has been living with type one diabetes for more than 30 years. He explained that he does consume food and beverages with alternative sweeteners, but within reason.

“One is probably okay, but I wouldn’t sit down and have a whole bunch in one sitting,” he explained.

He said that he was curious to know more about brazzein, and wouldn’t mind tasting it too.

“I think turning a waste into a resource: that’s certainly helpful and very useful,” Spring said. “I think we need more of that in our society, of course.”

“Now we all have to think about sustainability and climate change and what goes into all these kinds of productions of these chemicals versus maybe using some of these byproducts and changing it, right?”