[Text by Kevin Lim]
Chicken rice, char kway teow, nasi lemak, butter cookies… Wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand to turn our favourite comfort foods healthier?
While magic spells belong in the realm of fantasy, the magic of food innovation is, thankfully, real and alive at Alchemy Foodtech, a Singapore-based food technology start-up.
Alchemy Foodtech is on a mission to help the world fight diabetes – but their focus isn’t on curing the disease. Instead, the company is taking a proactive approach to preventing diabetes by battling unhealthy diets. The company takes daily staples such as rice, bread and noodles – carbohydrate-heavy food that spike our blood glucose levels – and transforms them into healthier, lower-Glycemic Index (GI) variations that look, feel and taste exactly the same as before.
Desperation Breeds Inspiration
Diabetes is a global epidemic. According to the International Diabetes Federation, there are approximately 425 million diabetics in the world today, and this number is expected to rise to 629 million by 2045. It is estimated that every six seconds, one person dies from diabetes. Singapore loses more than S$1 billion to the disease every year, while the annual burden of diabetes worldwide has soared to over US$1.3 trillion.
For one of Alchemy Foodtech’s founders, this painful reality has hit home, hard. Alan Phua lost both his grandmothers to diabetes, and has another five relatives who are afflicted with Type 2 diabetes, which is insulin resistance brought about by factors such as an unhealthy high-GI diet.
Seeing that the root cause of the problem was food, Alan was determined to effect a change. The astute serial entrepreneur teamed up with Verleen Goh, whose expertise is in food science, to set up Alchemy Foodtech.
Finding the Magic Formula
While Alan and Verleen knew that creating lower-GI versions of staple foods was possible, their main challenge was in creating a “magic formula” that would not change the quality of the dining experience in any way. The couple knew realistically that if Singaporeans were asked to choose between ‘health’ or ‘taste’, ‘taste’ would always win. Even Alan admits, “I love chicken rice, Hokkien mee and Japanese food. They are all carb-heavy – but without carbs, life wouldn’t be as interesting!”
It took three-and-a-half years of dedicated research and development work to create the company’s proprietary GI-lowering blend. They examined hundreds of plant compounds and fibre starches, scanning for each item’s efficacy in slowing down the digestion rate of carbohydrates and reducing blood glucose spikes.
While the team found several compounds that gave them the desired health results, none of those compounds fulfilled their other requirements – that is, the compound had to be white in colour (to blend undetected into rice, noodles and bread), odourless, as well as tasteless. The compound also could not interfere with the cooking process, as the team was adamant that clients in the food and beverage (F&B) industry would not adopt their blend if it required different cooking processes or additional machinery.
Everything had to be seamless for both F&B operators and the end consumers, who should not taste any difference between the original versions of their favourite foods and the lower-GI versions.
Eventually, the team at Alchemy Foodtech formulated a composite blend that fulfilled all their requirements. With this blend, they created 5ibrePlus and 5ibreGrains.
Tried and Tested
5ibrePlus is the powered form of Alchemy Foodtech’s proprietary blend. It can be added into flour, which in turn is made into bread and noodles. The end result is a healthier, lower-GI version of the end product, with all its original flavour, appearance and tensile qualities intact.
5ibreGrains is the same innovative blend formed in the shape of jasmine and japonica rice grains. Adding a small amount of 5ibreGrains (9%) to white rice (91%) effectively lowers the GI of white rice to the same level as brown rice, while increasing fibre content by 12 times. Better still, the rice retains the same softness, fluffiness, and fragrance of regular white rice that Singaporeans enjoy.
These results have been tested and proven in three separate rounds of trials conducted at the University of Sydney in Australia and the National University Hospital in Singapore.
Buoyed by the success of 5ibrePlus, Alchemy Foodtech has registered for patents on their blend in 10 countries, including Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Europe and the United States.
Healthier Times Ahead
Alchemy Foodtech successfully raised S$2.5 million in pre-series A funding earlier this year, and is currently working with leading food manufacturers to incorporate 5ibrePlus into commercial products. The team has already successfully completed production trials with Gardenia (bread), Tan Seng Kee Foods (Kang Kang noodles), Lim Kee Food Manufacturing (paus) and other household brands.
The company is also in the final stages of branding 5ibrePlus – a working name that will be rebranded in the coming few months – and marketing the benefits of their proprietary blend to other F&B companies as well as consumers. The goal is to educate consumers about their food technology and processes, so as to inspire confidence about the high quality and food safety standards that they adhere to.
It has been a challenging road for Alan and Verleen, who have had to overcome multiple hurdles in their quest to develop healthier staple foods for Singaporeans. But after hundreds of tests in their [email protected] laboratory, several highly successful clinical studies, and keen F&B clients who have given them the green light, Alchemy Foodtech is just a few months away from improving the health of Singaporeans everywhere.
By 2020, we can expect to see Alchemy Foodtech’s partners selling food products formulated with 5ibrePlus. After a successful launch in Singapore, the next stop is, naturally: eliminating high-GI food and taking on diabetes across the globe.