The sweetener, which would be described on food labels as 'siratose,' is claimed to be far superior to commercially available monk fruit extracts, and more potent, better-tasting, more soluble, and more stable in low PH beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, than Reb-A (the best-known steviol glycoside).
San Diego-based Senomyx, which uses proprietary taste receptor-based technologies to develop novel flavor ingredients, identified the sweetener (“a miniscule component of Luo Han Guo, which is the fruit of the Siraitia grosvenorii plant") after screening more than three million samples and identifying “nearly 300 sweeteners from 35 distinct families of sweeteners found in nature."
While monk fruit extracts are already widely used in foods, CEO John Poyhonen told analysts on Thursday, "Siratose has demonstrated potency and overall taste quality superior to existing monk fruit sweeteners and superior to over 50 other minor sweetener components found in both monk fruit and the monk fruit plant that we have evaluated...
"It's never been described in the literature and it's different than all of the monk fruit sweeteners that are on the market today. The primary sweetener in all the commercially available monk fruit extracts on the market is Mogroside V, which is very different than siratose."
In a statement accompanying the firm’s Q4 results, Poyhonen said: "Senomyx is introducing our new natural, zero-calorie sweetener under the common or usual name of siratose. This is not the brand name, but the name you would see on an ingredient list within the nutrition facts information panel on a packaged food or beverage product. Siratose comprises less than 1% of Luo Han Guo and could not have been discovered using traditional human taste testing."
Will consumers (and plaintiff’s attorneys) consider siratose made via fermentation, and not from the fruit, as ‘natural’?
But can siratose be cost-effectively manufactured on a commercial scale from the natural source (eg the fruit)?
Not according to Poyhonen, who says Senomyx plans to manufacture it at scale via a fermentation process, but has not provided details of the inputs.
One example of a fermentation process that might be comparable is the approach employed by Cargill and Evolva to make the better-tasting steviol glycosides Reb D+M (under the 'EverSweet' brand) by using a genetically engineered baker's yeast to convert a feedstock (eg. sugar or corn) into the desired glycosides.
While fermentation is considered to be a 'natural' process for producing flavors, for example, it is not clear whether consumers or plaintiff's attorneys would consider sweeteners produced this way to be as 'natural' as those derived directly from the stevia leaf or monk fruit.
Our goal is to achieve a proof of concept of the fermentation strain development by the first half of 2018
Senomyx has not yet detailed the precise production process for siratose, or said whether potential partners would seek to actively market it as 'natural,' but Poyhonen made it clear the company does not plan to extract the sweetener directly from fruit.
He added: "During the past year, we developed a comprehensive IP strategy, initiated preliminary safety studies and gained confidence on our ability to partner to develop a cost-effective fermentation scale-up process. Working with fermentation process experts, our goal is to achieve a proof of concept of the fermentation strain development by the first half of 2018.
“Assuming that we are able to achieve this goal, the next step is to optimize the strain development process and submit our GRAS notification by the end of 2019, keeping in mind the feasibility and timeline of these development activities is inherently uncertain."
"Siratose has demonstrated greater potency and a better taste profile than rebaudioside-A (the most used sweetener from stevia plants) in sensory evaluations. In addition, it has shown improved stability in low pH products, such as carbonated beverages, and increased solubility, making it easier to work with compared to all known stevia plant-based sweeteners. Importantly, siratose also has demonstrated superior potency and overall taste quality to existing Luo Han Guo sweeteners as well as over 50 other minor sweetener components found in this fruit and plant that we have evaluated."
John Poyhonen, CEO, Senomyx
"The fermentation process for siratose is under development and is an important component of our intellectual property strategy. However we plan to be transparent with consumers and customers regarding our fermentation approach as we move closer to commercializing siratose."
Sharon Wicker, chief commercial development officer, Senomyx
The feedback has been 'outstanding'
As for the commercialization strategy for siratose, he said: “Pursuing new non-exclusive collaborative relationships for our natural sweet taste program that maximize the commercial potential and provide our collaborators with access to siratose and future natural product discoveries remains a top priority.
“Several potential partners have already tasted siratose and the feedback has been outstanding. We have built a pipeline of excellent collaboration candidates and we remain confident in our ability to begin adding collaborators to our syndicate during 2017.”
"The name 'siratose' sounds to me, a food scientist, like the bulk sweeteners tagatose, allulose, and ribose. But to consumers, it sounds like a 'chemical'."
Alex Woo, CEO, W20 Food Innovation
The name isn't very consumer friendly
So how big a deal is this in the world of sweeteners?
Alex Woo, Ph.D. chief executive at consultancy W2O Food Innovation and an expert on high potency sweeteners, told FoodNavigator-USA that there were some potentially exciting sustainability benefits from producing food ingredients via fermentation rather than devoting vast swathes of agricultural land to growing plants that contain only trace levels of the compounds you are interested in.
However, siratose could hit some roadblocks, he predicted.
For a start, the name 'siratose' on a product label is not very consumer-friendly, he observed: "[If it is produced via] fermentation or enzymology, siratose is not extracted, so cannot be called 'monk fruit extract.' This parallels the label of 'stevia extract' for farm-based stevia, vs. 'Rebaudioside M' for fermentation-based stevia in the US. As Senomyx has already concluded, its label after it clears FDA GRAS will most likely be 'siratose.'
"Siratose sounds to me, a food scientist, like the bulk sweeteners tagatose, allulose, and ribose. But to consumers, it sounds like a 'chemical'."
"Senomyx only discovered siratose. Siratose is the name of a compound that exists in nature and has been found to occur naturally in lo han guo that has been used as a sweetener for centuries. It is not a manmade compound like sucralose or aspartame.
"For the chemophobes who believe that siratose may be too 'chemical sounding' on a food label, I say it is time to educate our consumers that such 'chemical sounding ingredients’ have a potential to be a solution to the diabetes and obesity epidemics ailing our world. It is time people learned that all foods are made up of chemicals and also learned to understand about what’s good for them instead of being afraid of them."
Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at Chicago-based food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC
However, if consumers are educated about the sustainability benefits, said Woo, the conversation could change: "The other side of the argument is that increasingly for sustainability reasons, fermentation/enzymology-based found-in-nature high potency sweeteners will be accepted side-by-side with farm-based stevia and monk fruit counterparts.
"In the neighboring space of non/low caloric bulk sweeteners, the only commercially available form is either fermentation-based (Erythritol) or enzymology-based (Allulose). There is no farm-based counterparts at commercially feasible costs."
Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal at Chicago-based food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC, added: "Ecologically conscious consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that extracting minor food ingredients from a plant can produce a lot of waste and may not be good for the environment, especially if the rest of that plant is not used viably."
Senomyx posted a net loss of $10.7m on revenues of $23m in the year ended December 31, 2016, but has cash reserves of $12.4m and no debt.
What is siratose? A high-potency zero calorie sweetener and "miniscule component of Luo Han Guo, the fruit of the Siraitia grosvenorii plant."
How is it made? Senomyx has not provided details beyond saying that it will be made via a fermentation process and that it hopes to announce a partner this year.
How will it be labeled? siratose.
How much will it cost? According CEO John Poyhonen, "We anticipate a lower cost in use for siratose compared to commercially available high intensity sweeteners."
What are the potential applications? Senomyx has not provided details but indicated that it performs better than Reb A in low pH beverages such as carbonated soft drinks.
Is it safe, and what regulatory approvals are needed? Senomyx has "initiated preliminary safety studies" and hopes to submit a GRAS notification by the end of 2019.
When will it launch? Senomyx has not provided a commercial launch date, but says it hopes to submit a GRAS notification by the end of 2019, which could mean a possible launch in 2020.
Is it ‘natural’? Much will depend on exactly how siratose - which is found naturally in monk fruit - is manufactured at a commercial scale. Senomyx says it plans to do so via a fermentation process, and not by extracting siratose from the natural source (monk fruit). A comparable product is Reb D+M being developed by Cargill and Evolva under the EverSweet brand, which Cargill has said in the past will not be actively marketed as a natural sweetener, although it is "chemically identical to what you’d extract from the stevia leaf."
Is it non-GMO? Senomyx has not said whether the micro-organism it may use to produce siratose is genetically engineered, although even if it is, it would not require a GMO label under the new federal GMO labeling law if the micro-organism is used as a processing aid and is not present in the final sweetener. (That said, the Non-GMO Project typically says products made with genetic engineering at any stage would not qualify for its Non-GMO Project Verified stamp.)