The Mad Scientists Who Engineered Healthier Sugar That Actually Tastes Good
It’s only taken this startup 60 years — and it’s tackling salt next
Eran Baniel’s face is as full of wisdom as his pockets are of candy. The 74-year-old, with close-cropped silver hair and short silver beard, drags treats with him everywhere he goes — Barbie-sized bottles of hazelnut spread, bite-size biscuits, wrapped little chocolates. It’s as if someone cast Sean Connery as Willy Wonka.
Inside the lab of Baniel’s startup, DouxMatok, headquartered a half hour from Tel Aviv, Israel, food scientists in white coats labor over sweets like wounded war patients. Baniel pushes a plate of two seemingly identical vanilla cookies my way. As I take a bite of one, he intensely studies my reaction, wondering if my palate can detect their molecular differences. This is one of his favorite party tricks: seeing if strangers can distinguish his product — a hacked form of sugar — from a household-name snack.
The cookies taste, well, exactly like normal cookies, and that’s his point. While they’re made with sugar, they need far less than usual because they use a new type of sugar developed by DouxMatok. (The name — half French, half Hebrew — means “double sweet.”) You only need half as much.
By loading sugar onto a carrier — a fiber or mineral — it mimics the way a drug might work to reach a certain part of the body.
Unlike artificial sweeteners that try (and often fail) to replicate sugar’s delicate taste, DouxMatok takes a radically different approach: It reduces sugar by 40% without compromising texture or taste. The startup’s technology modifies how sugar molecules interact with taste receptors to enhance the experience of sweetness. By loading sugar onto a carrier — a fiber or mineral — it mimics the way a drug might work to reach a certain part of the body. Normally, when you bite into something sweet, most of the sugar never sees your taste buds — 80% of it goes directly to the digestive system. DouxMatok’s reengineered sugar allows for better delivery of the sweet flavor to land on taste receptors, thereby eliminating the need for more added sugar.
DouxMatok, which raised $22 million in funding in 2019, is one of several startups racing to develop new sweeteners for the growing market of health-conscious shoppers — and a food industry plagued by the war on sugar. Blamed for obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even poor sleep, sugar has been dubbed the “new smoking.” More than 50% of consumers say they are actively cutting back on sugar — often labeled an “addiction” — and 80% of shoppers say they check the sugar content of food labels prior to purchase. Sales of sodas and cereals are in steep decline.
“Sugar has surpassed fats as the number one thing that consumers try to get out of their diets,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm.
In recent years, the food and beverage industry has been desperately seeking ways to cut sugar. Big companies like Coca-Cola and Mondelez (the corporation behind Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Cadbury, and other brands) have publicly set goals to reduce their use of sugar. PepsiCo announced that by 2025, at least two-thirds of its beverages will have less added sugar. Reaching those milestones, however, is complicated. “Now the bar is ‘How do you make substitution without sacrifice?’” says Seifer.
For that, many industry giants are starting to turn to DouxMatok. According to Baniel, his startup already has over 40 companies as clients, including half of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers. Partnerships include Canada’s largest refined sugar distributor, Lantic Sugars; Givaudan, one of the world’s largest makers of food flavorings; and Südzucker AG, the largest sugar producer in Europe.
Another 50 potential clients, Baniel says, are on its waitlist to work with them; however, the complexity of his product means it can’t scale as quickly as he would like it to. Unlike stevia or monk fruit, DouxMatok’s sugar doesn’t just blend into any product. Instead, every time it’s integrated into a new food, the company needs to develop a corresponding recipe. If Baniel can figure out how to streamline the process, not only will it accelerate the company growth and impact — the same technology also has the potential to crack other problematic ingredients, like salt. “If we do our job decently, it would represent a revolution,” says Baniel. “If we do it well, the sky is the limit.”
Although DouxMatok is only five years old, according to Baniel, the lineage of the company’s premise dates back to the founding of the state of Israel. Toward the end of World War II, during the British mandate in Palestine, schoolchildren had difficulties concentrating in school; they were fidgety, aggressive, a few even violent. One schoolteacher surmised the poor behavior stemmed from a craving for sugar, which was rationed at the time. So she contacted someone in her village whom she believed could devise a solution — Baniel’s father, professor Avraham Baniel, then a young chemist working in a paint factory.
The teacher approached the elder Baniel with a peculiar observation: Whenever she made a starchy pudding, she noticed it required very little sugar to carry a significantly sweeter taste. Could he find a way to use starch to expand the taste of sugar? “My father thought that in a funny way, she was right. It was disproportionately sweet,” recalls Baniel, “and he said to himself, one day I should look into this.”
In just a few years, the startup has received 20 patents, but its technology alone wasn’t enough to sway food giants.
It only took him 60 years. After a decades-long career in industrial chemistry, professor Baniel finally revisited the idea in 2014. At the age of 96, he began experimenting with sugars in his own home kitchen. After one trial in which he nearly burned down the house, his son — then 69 — finally caught on to his post-retirement work: He was cooking up a futuristic sugar.
At the time, Eran Baniel had just sold his startup, HCL CleanTech, a developer of cellulosic sugars for biofuels. After seeing his father’s work, Baniel arranged a meeting with the innovation lab at Israeli food manufacturer Strauss, which specializes in snacks and dairy products. There, Strauss executives told them there are two problems for the food and beverage industry — sugar and salt, recalls Baniel: “Whoever solves the one or the other — or certainly both — is king.” The very next morning, the father-son duo incorporated DouxMatok.
In just a few years, the startup has received 20 patents, but its technology alone wasn’t enough to sway food giants. In the company’s first year, recalls Baniel, he figured out that reducing sugar is “not a good sales point” because a lot of companies claim to do that. Giving out samples didn’t work either. His team also started out by giving them to potential clients, only to routinely hear it didn’t work. “Rarely is our ingredient properly used,” explains Baniel. “Today, we don’t send sugars without guidance or a workshop to precede independent work done with our product.”
Baniel realized he needed a more hands-on approach with customers. Due to the complicated nature of its product, the company invested in what’s become its biggest department: the kitchen. A half-dozen food engineers and chefs work closely with each client on how to integrate DouxMatok sugar — as well as how to fill the space left by the missing sweet stuff. This is a common reformulation conundrum: If you reduce an ingredient, what do you put in its place? Basically, how do you ensure a Hershey’s chocolate bar retains its size and texture once a substantial percentage of its sugar goes missing?
Now, the DouxMatok team travels from partner to partner, armed with specific baking protocols and healthy fillers, like chickpea protein (60% of consumers want more protein in their diets, and not necessarily from meat). One DouxMatok cookie counts the same amount of protein as an egg, Baniel says.
Still, it’s a process that could prove difficult to scale. And because DouxMatok is more than just a speciality ingredient — it’s more like a full food-science service — the cost is roughly 15% to 20% higher than traditional sugar, something Baniel says is unavoidable. “You cannot provide healthy treats without raising the costs,” he says.
That could prove to be a disadvantage when competing with more established artificial sweeteners such as stevia or aspartame. “It’s very competitive,” says John Fry, a global industry expert in alternative sweeteners. “Most [artificial sweeteners] are now commodities and there’s generally quite fierce price competition.”
But DouxMatok does have one massive advantage over the artificial stuff: It’s the real thing. Though consumers have an aversion to too much sugar, they’re more willing to “indulge” in traditional sugar than chemical alternatives, explains NPD’s Seifer. One recent survey found that three in five consumers would prefer to reduce their sugar intake rather than consume artificial sweeteners.
Plus, DouxMatok’s sweets actually taste good. In a blind taste test conducted by Nielsen, 59% of 120 participants preferred a Nutella-like spread made with DouxMatok over one made with conventional sugar. They found the same preference for DouxMatok’s cookies, which won by 68%. The reason is quite simple: With less sugar, other present flavors get the chance to shine. “The reduction amplifies the taste of vanilla or hazelnut,” explains Baniel.
But DouxMatok is also facing some competition within the modified sugar space. In 2018, Nestlé announced it too was experimenting with the structure of sugar and released the lower-sugar Milkybar chocolate in the U.K. (It didn’t quite land: Reviews took issue with its sticky and “unmelty” texture. This month, Nestlé announced it was dropping the product, due to weak sales.)
Then there’s Global BioLife Inc.’s modified sugar Laetose, a byproduct of starch manufacturing. It’s both low-glycemic and boasts 30% less calories than table sugar, making it a safer alternative for those monitoring blood sugar levels. The company partnered with Quality Candy Inc., the largest private label manufacturer for candy and snack items in the United States.
But each of these new technologies has problems with execution, says Fry, the sweetener expert. Laetose reportedly has “taste issues,” he says, Nestlé’s sugar has only shown to work (sort of) in chocolate, and DouxMatok, for all its progress, cannot be used in beverages. Its method coats minerals with sugar molecules, a pairing that comes undone as soon as it hits saliva — or liquid of any kind. It’s a big drawback, considering nearly half of all sugars in American diets comes from beverages.
DouxMatok is working on developing a soluble solution for beverages, but it’s still a year or two away. Its primary focus, for now, are baked goods and candies, which won’t hit shelves in the U.S. for another 18 to 24 months. (“It doesn’t move fast,” says Baniel about the difficulties of reworking recipes.) Eventually, the startup plans to sell directly to consumers, including bags of sugar that can be mixed into their morning coffee. “Competition is very tight,” concedes Baniel. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to taste.”
Update: An earlier version of this piece misstated the cost of DouxMatok compared to sugar. It costs 15% to 20% more.