In this week’s Community Feature, we speak to Alan Phua and Verleen Goh from Alchemy Foodtech, a lab aiming to provide healthcare solutions using food technology.
What does Alchemy Foodtech do?
Alchemy Foodtech’s mission is to help the world fight diabetes by making sure our daily food staples like white rice, white bread, noodles, stop giving us high blood glucose levels, to fight diabetes. Our proprietary technology is actually this product which we call 5ibrePlus and 5ibreGrain. Basically what it does is that it will lower the glycemic index of your refined carbohydrates such as regular white jasmine rice to the same level as brown rice without change in taste, colour and texture. You can continue eating your favourite white rice, but you get the benefits of the brown rice.
Do you have any competitors out there for your product?
We do have substitutes like brown rice, wholegrain bread and these are things that have some level of efficacy in terms of reducing Glycemic Index (GI) of your diet. However, because of the way that the food taste and the texture are very coarse, a lot of people don’t like to eat it. While there are substitutes, they are poor substitutes.
What is your technology?
Our technology is an active-ingredient blend, which is patent pending. We took about three and a half years to develop. What this ingredient does is that it slows down the digestion rate of carbohydrates in the body, the release of glucose in the bloodstream is done at a slower pace, so you don’t see the dangerous high spikes in the blood glucose levels.
Who are your customers?
Our business model is B2B2C. We sell our ingredients to food manufacturers and they in turn, get to protect their customers but we do the marketing straight with the consumers. The product comes in two forms: powder form and grain form. The powder form gets applied into processed carbohydrates like bread, noodles and buns. We usually incorporate it in the first step which is flour mixing, by substituting a small portion of the flour and keeping all the other processes down the line constant, we are able to lower the GI of the product without changing the taste and texture. The second form that this product comes in is in grain form, which is basically powder shaped into grains. We call it 5ibreGrain. By adding 9% of these 5ibreGrains to regular white rice, the GI then becomes the same as brown rice, but without changing the taste or the texture.
How did you come up with this idea? What is the research and technology that goes behind the fibre grains?
We started by thinking a lot about the ageing population. What are the problems that happen to someone who is aged and basically, what are the problems that plague society? I think one of the glaring epidemics that is actually happening now is Diabetes. One in ten adults in the world has Diabetes and in Singapore alone, we have about close to half a million people with Diabetes. This is definitely a very alarming rate and we also think that the diet is one of the key components to how people get Diabetes. 90% of diabetics are suffering from type 2 Diabetes, which is mainly a diet and lifestyle problem. Looking closer to the diets of people today, it is definitely obvious that people are taking in a lot of refined carbohydrates. One of the most staple foods is white rice. In Southeast Asia and East Asia, the type of white rice that they eat are very high in glycemic index. There is also bread, cookies and noodles. There is a huge range of carbohydrate products that we love to eat and we can’t give them up. Instead of incorporating complex carbohydrates or other ingredients that can reduce glycemic index but changes the taste quite significantly, we look at how we can use food technology to make functioning ingredients that can be incorporated into the food manufacturing process and offer the same sensory experience but also effecting a glycemic reduction for the consumers.
How are you educating the general public?
Products are not on the market yet but we are working with agencies to come up with campaigns to send out early information about what this technology is. We have done several focus groups, we know what are the concerns and information we need to feed to the consumers. One big area will be to establish trust. Some of the things the focus group participants highlighted are they like the fact that the research was government funded through a deep tech research fund. The technology was developed in NUS even though it’s our technology. Also, the fact that marquee food players are starting to take on these ingredients. We have announced guys like Gardenia, Tan Seng Kee (TSK) Kang Kang noodles, Lim Kee buns. All these are marquee food brands that are massively available in supermarkets. These are things that consumers have said if they see it happening, it will really inspire a high level of trust. Now that we have already achieved these things as well as proving clinical efficacy in clinical studies, we now need to translate these data and information into marketing friendly messages to communicate to end consumers.
What are some of the challenges Alchemy Foodtech face?
For us, it’s really gathering the scientific evidence for the product. When we first started the company, we actually applied for the deep tech research grant from Enterprise Singapore. It used to be called TECS, now it is renamed as StartupSG Tech. The grant really gave us the financial support and push to develop the prototype and also enabled us to look into how we can produce the 5ibreGrains at mass levels. Gathering that capability as well as conducting in vivo human studies was crucial to justify that not only can we make the prototype, we can also prove that it is able to lower glycemic response in human studies.
What was the turning point for Alchemy Foodtech?
One of the big turning points will be timing. The world has a very big diabetes problem, but the world did not know about it until the last few years because of education and awareness campaigns by Health Promotion Boards around the world. It is really around this time that consumers are getting concerned and they really realise they are getting diabetes from food because 90% of diabetes patients are type 2. With all these data, the food manufacturers start to realise that they actually had a role in this. The products that they’ve been selling the last few decades contributed to the Diabetes problem and that’s why many of them stepped forward to say that since you have a technology that works, we want to do our part also, to give back to society. Another good timing is the greater emphasis on food tech in these couple of years. Our company started in 2015, back then we were more of a stealth-mode when we were doing a lot of the R&D. I think the timing is actually quite right for us because we are at the phase where we want to take the product into market and Singapore as well as within the region, there is suddenly a lot of interest in food tech and our startup is primed at the right timing for that.
How can we help?
We are looking for partners, in terms of big food corporations, that would be for the business development side. To support that work, we are also looking to take on more interns from Food Science and Marketing background. At this period of time, we are also trying to go into data management because we are collecting a lot of data on the compound we are researching on, so we are looking for people in data analytics as well.
Watch the full video interview with Alan and Verleen from Alchemy Foodtech here:
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