Love at first bite. We have all experienced the rush from a forkful of cake, a fresh baked cookie or a bowl full of ice cream. The gratification we feel is the result of dopamine being released and activating the reward system in our brain, much in the same way that sex and drugs do. When you think about it like that, it is no wonder that we are a nation addicted to sugar. But much of the sugar we are consuming isn't the result of eating cake for three meals a day, rather because it is virtually inescapable. Out of 600,000 items found in grocery stores, 80 percent contained added sugar.
Long considered a staple in food processing, sugar is often used to mask naturally occurring bitter tastes. But as sugar's pernicious effects become more widely understood, consumers are becoming resolute in decreasing their intake. Of course, that is not without its challenges for food companies, since creating a tasty product is often at odds with creating a healthy one. "People aren't really willing to compromise on taste," said Alan Hahn, CEO, MycoTechnology. "They want less calories, but they still want it to taste great."
For Denver-based MycoTechnology, it believes the key to reducing added sugars in food can be found in gourmet fungi. Founded in 2013, the company has created an all-natural fermentation process called MycoSmooth whereby mushroom roots (mycelium) are trained to consume bitterness found in foods and in turn infuse the source with immune boosting beta glucans. While the process might sound foreign to us, it is a role that mushrooms know well from nature where they act as the cleanup crew of the forest, pulling toxins out of the soil and giving back nutrients to the roots of trees.
Initially, MycoTechnology is targeting coffee and chocolate, which are two huge markets that rely on sugar to cover up inherent bitterness. The company said it is already in testing phases with several global food companies. For those looking to utilize MycoTechnology's process they will be able to do so through licensing, managed services with onsite support or finished products through private labeling. And with consumers keeping a more watchful eye on their food, Hanh believes big food companies will have no choice but to take notice. "The anti-sugar movement is growing rapidly, and people want options."
Darren Seifer, executive director and food and beverage industry analyst, The NPD Group, echoed those sentiments, "In 2014 sugar became the number one item adults say they are trying to avoid in their diets due to falling concerns around fat. Couple that fact with how simple carbohydrates have been blamed for our obesity epidemic, it would be of high importance for marketers to react appropriately to these shifts in consumer demands."
While grassroots efforts among consumers will have a hand in change, there are also bigger forces at work like the Food and Drug Administration. The agency has proposed updates to the nutrition facts that appear on food labels that would require companies to call out added sugars versus natural ones as well as provide a daily percent value. And just this week, the FDA came down with new recommendations stating that Americans over the age of three should consume no more than 12.5 teaspoons or 50 grams of added sugars per day. This is compared to the 22-30 teaspoons that most Americans ingest daily.
As food companies grapple with the changing market, many are turning to sugar substitutes like Stevia to sweeten products. But plant-based replacements often produce a metallic aftertaste that many consumers find unappealing. To deal with that issue, MycoTechnology developed a separate process called MycoZyme, which uses enzymes from mushroom that act as a natural bitter blocker. In July, the Chinese company and producer of Sucralose and Aspartame, Niutang, announced the launch of NiuVia Stevia, which utilizes the MycoZyme process.
While Hahn sees MycoTechnology's potential to tap into the $600 billion food market, reducing the amount of sugar found in food is an issue that is also personal to him. "We are just trying to make people healthier. I ate myself to type-2 diabetes over five years ago, and I started learning about food, and it really motivated me for this company and to have options for people."