Stevia First has worked out the fine points of its fermentation technology by producing a steviol glycoside via the method. The technology works by developing microorganisms that will excrete source molecules as feedstock and identifying others that produce enzymes that will, when combined with the appropriate feed stock, produce the target molecule of interest, in the case of the company’s first commercial target the steviol glycoside Rebaudioside A.
The first goal of the technology was to foster domestic stevia production to bring a made in USA product to market cost effectively that would help alleviate supply concerns. The company is cultivating stevia in California to supply the natural label claim sweeteners market, which stevia CEO Robert Brooke said he believes will be a facet of the market for years to come. But to capture the demand for a cost effective solution that is not sensitive to natural claims, the company pursued its parallel nature identical strategy.
Now the company is seeking to take that expertise beyond the realm of sweeteners into the broader category of nutraceuticals. The new ingredients of interest work in what has been called the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) pathway. AMPK plays a key role as a master regulator of cellular energy homeostasis and as such lies at the heart of concerns about metabolic disorders, Brooke said. The AMPK pathway also figures into the company’s concept of “geroprotectors,” which are food and nutritional products designed to have functional effects that mimic the health benefits of proper diet and exercise.
“One way you discover the right pathways to look at is to look at the extraordinary examples of lifespans. If you look at super-centenarians, people who live more than 100 years, researchers are now sequencing their genomes to see how they avoid the common ravages of aging like diabetes and cancer,” Brooke told NutraIngredients-USA.
“They also study the bowhead whale, which lives more than 200 years. Another example is the naked mole rat, which can live up to 30 years. Using comparative biology you can tease out what the genetic pathways are,” he said.
“Pharmaceutical companies have targeted that pathway. There are natural products that influence the AMPK pathway that have already been shown to have effects in vivo, in animal studies,” Brooke said.
One advantage for Stevia First of moving into new areas with its production technology is potentially reduced competition. In the stevia market the development stage company is going up against such heavy hitters as Cargill, GLG Life Tech, PureCircle and other players in the stevia market. While stevia has obvious market pull, with the increasing popularity of low and no calorie products, but the ingredient end of the market is trending toward commoditization. That’s why having a low cost, fermented alternative is so attractive for Stevia First.
The opportunity for ingredients targeting metabolic conditions is potentially even bigger. An investment report on Stevia First prepared by Caprock Research projected that the worldwide prevalence of diabetes is expected to rise at a 4.2% CAGR though 2030 by which time the number of people affected by the condition will hit about 550 million. Brooke said that even with that super sized opportunity, some nutraceutical ingredients may struggle to take full advantage because of supply bottlenecks.
“In the nutraceutical market, just getting products out there where you have a reliable concentration of your active ingredient, that is often hard to find,” Brooke said.
The fermentation approach won’t play in a natural or organic positioning, Brooke admitted. But it’s an open question how many dietary supplement consumers are making decisions based on those concerns, and how many view supplements as something akin to pharmaceuticals, i.e. processed, extracted and concentrated to a degree that the finished product is already removed from nature.
“It is a question that we address all the time. With stevia in particular it is a food product. Some people like natural, some people like organic, some don’t care as long as it tastes the right way. One approach is producing a nature identical product and bring to market a very high quality, US-produced ingredient,” Brooke said.