Same taste, but different: how local foodtech startups are making comfort food a less guilty treat

Image by Eric Lee from Pixabay

by Zheng-Shan Chong and Shweta Jadhav

We Singaporeans love our food. That goes without saying, but as with other developed nations we are also getting more conscious about eating right – both in terms of health, and environmental impact. Demand for vegetarian and vegan options is booming and the consumption of healthier alternatives like wholegrain bread and brown rice has increased, driven in part by greater awareness of the environmental costs of food production and aggressive public health campaigns against diabetes and hypertension. Yet, many are still hesitant to make changes to their everyday meals for a simple but important reason: taste. BCS spoke to two homegrown startups, Alchemy Foodtech and NamZ, who are challenging the notion that healthier alternatives necessarily have to taste different from the dishes we know and love.

 

Tackling the problem of starch, not sugar

Including more wholegrains in a diet is associated with many health benefits including lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of developing Type II diabetes. Carbohydrates in wholegrains are digested more slowly than those from refined sources, like white rice or bread, thus providing a gradual increase in blood sugar levels rather than large fluctuations following a meal. However, wholegrain products don’t have the same taste and texture as their conventional, refined counterparts, says Verleen Goh, co-founder and Chief Food Fighter at Alchemy Foodtech. As a result, some popular local dishes such as chicken rice or curry just don’t work as well with brown rice, making it difficult to adopt on a regular basis – especially for those who regard these dishes with nostalgia.

To address this issue, Alchemy Foodtech has developed an ingredient that promises to slow down the digestion rate of refined carbohydrates to the same extent as wholegrains, without altering the taste of the final product. The ingredient, called Alchemy Fibre™, is derived from plants such as peas, corn, tapioca, beans and legumes and can be used as a partial replacement for flour in recipes. This means it can be incorporated into products like bread, noodles, and buns. “We wanted to create a product for consumers who want the taste of white rice or bread, but at the same time have the benefit of slowed down glucose release,” says Ms Goh.

The idea of targeting staple foods like rice, bread and noodles resulted from preliminary research into food innovations for diabetic patients. “I noticed that most food innovations for diabetics were mainly happening in the confectionery and artificial sweetener space,” says Ms Goh. “However, Type II diabetes patients tend to be a little older and don’t actually eat that much sweets! They do eat a lot of rice though.” The founders of Alchemy Foodtech then realised that targeting staples could make a much bigger overall difference, for both diabetics and non-diabetics alike. “We may not eat desserts everyday, whereas staples are consumed in large amounts daily, so we realised that targeting staple foods created a larger impact than desserts,” said Ms Goh.

Singaporeans consumed approximately 1 cup of rice per person per day in 20171. (Credit: Pan Xiangzhen/Pixabay)

Alchemy Foodtech is working with food manufacturers such as Gardenia bread, Kang Kang noodles, and Lim Kee steamed buns as well as various restaurants, bakeries, and cafes to incorporate Alchemy Fibre™ into existing products. The company has worked with industry partners to test that products incorporating Alchemy Fibre™ have the same texture as those currently on the shelf through sensory evaluation, as well as using a texture analyser that measures the hardness or springiness of foods using pressure. They have also conducted studies with starch digestion assays in the laboratory and on volunteers by measuring carbohydrate availability in the blood after consuming products made with or without Alchemy Fibre™. The idea is to then have manufacturers label their products as ‘made with Alchemy Fibre™’ to promote brand awareness and communicate their mission to consumers, says Ms Goh. The first of such products are scheduled to launch in June 2020, subject to current conditions.

 

A smorgasbord of sustainable options

For the more ecologically-conscious consumer, NamZ is another homegrown food technology company that aims to develop healthier and more sustainable alternatives without trade-offs in taste. Their first product is a low-fat instant noodle made with proprietary technology that replaces the deep-frying step during production, and incorporates a blend of natural oils and spices. “While some air-dried noodles may have quite a nice texture, everyone is used to the ‘deep fried’ taste that you expect from an instant noodle,’ explains Mark Lim, Strategist at NamZ, ‘so we found this blend of ingredients that, when added at a low dosage, actually gives you that ‘deep fried’ taste.” The result? Noodles that have 70% less fat but taste as addictive as conventional instant noodles.

Cutting out the deep frying step has other benefits, such as allowing the company to incorporate more unconventional crops into their noodles. In particular, future-fit crops like the bambara groundnut and moringa, a plant commonly found in India, have already been included in some of NamZ’s noodles to boost nutritional content. “Deep-frying is a harsh process – high temperatures, happens very quickly – so when you try to incorporate ingredients like the bambara groundnut or moringa into the dough, you lose a lot of the nutrients in the process,” says Mr Lim. “With our technology, because it’s not that harsh, it actually retains all the macro- and micronutrients.”

Future-fit crops refer to plants that are packed with nutrients, resistant to an increasingly dry climate, and can be farmed economically. They are therefore touted as the key to a sustainable food system of the future by the United Nations and other experts. For instance, the bambara groundnut has well-balanced proportions of carbohydrate, protein, and fat and can thrive in dry, sandy soil. It is native to semi-arid regions of Africa such as Ghana, from which NamZ currently sources their groundnuts.

Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea) from Buzi district in Mozambique (left) and Moringa pods (right). (Credit: Ton Rulkens and Shijan Kaakkara/Wikimedia Commons)

Although NamZ’s noodles are predominantly wheat-based, the company has plans to develop a wide range of food products using the bambara groundnut as a primary ingredient. Blended soups, hummus-like spreads, dairy alternatives and even soy sauce replacements are currently in the pipeline. In order to scale up production, NamZ is also in talks with palm oil companies to use spare capacity of degraded land in Southeast Asia – old palm oil plantations which can no longer support cultivation – to grow the groundnuts. “What is useful with the bambara groundnut is that it is a legume, so it can bind nitrogen and rejuvenate the soil,” says Margit Langwallner, a research scientist at NamZ.

Nonetheless, taste remains a key consideration for all their products. ‘You can have the healthiest, most environmentally-friendly quick noodle, but if it doesn’t taste good, no-one is interested.’ says Ms Langwallner. NamZ has been working to create a formulation that mimics the taste and texture of conventional deep-fried instant noodles, and plans to launch their first direct-to-consumer products in Q2 2020.

 

Investors tuck in but will consumers come to the table?

Food technology has attracted a lot of investor attention in Singapore over the past few years, with the government leading the way by allocating S$144 million for food-related R&D under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan. Temasek Holdings, a government-owned investment company, has also reportedly invested US$5 billion in the agrifood sector over the last five years. This interest stems from a push towards self-sufficiency in food production as well as better nutrition to combat common health problems like Type II diabetes. In 2017, about 430,000 or 14% of Singaporeans aged 18 to 69 years were diagnosed with pre-diabetes, a condition that puts them at high risk of developing Type II diabetes in the next 8 years without intervention. Ms Goh estimates that Alchemy Foodtech has received a total of approximately S$1 million through government-funded grants and prizes alone.

The past two years in particular has seen the formation of several Singapore-based agri-food specific investment firms like Food Ventures, Germi8, and VisVires New Protein (VVNP) and the opening of Singapore’s first food innovation incubator, Innovate 360. Set up by Singapore’s oldest sugar manufacturer Cheng Yew Heng, Innovate 360 not only provides food manufacturing facilities but also business networks and connections to various distribution channels for early-stage food startups. In addition, startups looking to grow their business here can also apply to local alternative protein or agrifood tech accelerator programs run by New York-based Big Idea Ventures and online venture capital platform AgFunder, respectively. These accelerator programs seek to help later-stage startups by providing them with facilities, funding and mentorship needed to scale up their operations.

Of course, food tech startups need not be limited to industry-specific investment funds. The social impact aspect of NamZ’s business clinched the company a DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant in 2019. The same grant scheme awarded a total of S$1.3 million to nine social enterprises that year.

Aside from raising funds, Alchemy and NamZ have seen successful business-to-business (B2B) sales, but with their first consumer products launching this year, this represents a critical moment for both companies to find out if their mission and price point appeals to the average Singaporean. Both Ms Goh and Mr Lim are optimistic that their products will be well received. “Most of the food manufacturers we worked with saw it as a win-win situation for us and them to show consumers there could be a healthier alternative that feels and tastes just like their regular products,” says Ms Goh about Alchemy Fibre™. Mr Lim cites positive customer feedback from NamZ’s existing B2B partners. “Some of our clients, including a high-end hotel and a prata chain, are already serving our noodles to their customers, but they’re not telling [the customers] because they want it to be a surprise at the end, that you can have this healthier noodle that tastes the same,” he said.

1Calculated from data reported by Goldstein Research on the rice industry in Singapore.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Verleen Goh from Alchemy Foodtech, and Mark Lim and Margit Langwallner from NamZ Pte Ltd for their insightful comments.

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

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