Diana Plant Sciences debuts cocoa ingredient derived from plant stem cells

Cocovanol, from Diana Plant Sciences.
Cocovanol, from Diana Plant Sciences.
Diana Plant Sciences, based in Portland, OR, has brought to market what it says is the first nutraceutical ingredient produced completely in a bioreactor via plant stem cell technology.

The ingredient, a cocoa powder containing a high level of flavanols the company has branded as Cocovanol, debuted recently at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA.  The powder is indistinguishable at a glance from standard cocoa powder, save for its lighter color. Except in this case, a process of controlled growth within a bioreactor—not photosynthesis—is the prime input that resulted in the ingredient.

So far as company officials are aware, it is the first nutraceutical ingredient to come to market via the technology, said Marc Philouze, president of Diana Plant Sciences.

“There are quite a number of companies that advertise plant stem technology, mostly in the cosmetic industry. What’s really valuable is we don’t emphasize so much the stem cells, we care more about the active metabolites within the cells that provide the benefits,”​ Philouze told NutraIngredients-USA.

Diana first identifies a substance of interest, and then drills down to find out which cells within the plant are producing the compounds shown by the scientific literature to have health benefits.  They can then culture just the wheat so to speak—those specific cells (in the case of Cocovanol, the cells within the cacao beans that synthesize the flavanols)— without having to harvest the chaff, namely all of the thousands of other types of cells within the cacao bean or any other plant of interest that produce other compounds incidental to the health benefit associated with that ingredient.

Non GMO approach

It’s a reductionist approach, Philouze acknowledges, one that has led the technology to be applied in the research and manufacture of pharmaceuticals.  One big difference between Diana’s approach and those of the drug researchers, though, is that in the pharmaceutical realm there is no special issue surrounding genetic modification technology to tweak the stem cells to deliver the desired compounds.  Diana explicitly rejects that approach for the production of its nutracuetical ingredients.

“This is a non GMO process.  We don’t intervene at that level,”​ Philouze said.

Hurdles to commercial scale production

Researchers have used the approach for quite some time, Philouze said.  But for decades, certain hurdles relegated it to the lab bench.

“The technology itself is not new. It is something that has been looked at and worked on in university labs for 40 or 50 years on its principles.  There were some real challenges that have prevented it from getting it to market before it terms of stability and selectivity,”​ he said.

Tailoring the process so that it is cost effective, stable and reliably reproducible were the main hurdles Diana had to overcome.

“We had to identify how to maximize the production of valuable compounds within new cells,”​ Philouze said.

“There are two main considerations. One is cell selection. You can think of it like traditional plant breeding, where you try to get the best characteristics to reproduce from generation to generation. That’s the same thing we do in the lab.

“The second is the conditions under which we make those cells grow. By understanding that and controlling that we can produce more of what we want and less than what we don’t want,”​ he said.

Speed to market

The technology promises speed in the production of new, improved nutraceutical ingredients.  New cell generations arise in a matter of days or weeks, rather than having to wait a season or more in traditional plant breeding to grow new generations and select for the best characteristics. Philouze estimated about two years (depending on the plant species) to take a new ingredient from the planning stages to commercial production.

In addition, there is a reliability factor: Cells grown in bioreactors can be protected from diseases that can wreak havoc with monocultures of cultivars of certain plant species out in the field. And the technology is, of course, immune to drought and other weather swings.

Sustainability story

While cultivating plant metabolites in bioreactors within a chemical plant is not what a lot of people would call “green” at first glance, the technology has a strong sustainability story to tell, too, Philouze said.

“In terms of sustainability there are very powerful benefits for that technology,”​ he said.

“We have modeled the water footprint for one kilogram of high quality cocoa powder. Our technology has 50 to 100 times lower water consumption. You get a much better environmental footprint.”

The technology presumably could offer a lower carbon footprint, too, when the fuel expended in  transporting cocoa beans from their cultivation locations in various parts of the tropics to processing plants is figured in.  Philouze said Diana has yet to make that calculation, but that remains a project for the future.

Diana Plant Sciences is a division of  Diana Group SA, a global company with headquarters in Vannes, France that is focused on organoleptic performance of natural ingredients for the food, pet food, nutraceutical, aquaculture and cosmetic industries. Dianna Group has revenues of over $500 million, employs over 1,500 people and is established in 22 countries. 

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