‘An investment in health’: Asian start-up launches natural sweetener during COVID-19 pandemic

3 May 2021

Southeast Asian start-up Swiftlet has developed a natural, zero-calorie sweetener made from a blend of plant extracts with the taste and functionality of sugar. “It’s an investment in health,” says its co-founder.

The company says Swiftlet natural sugar replacement contains zero calories and has a low glycaemic index, meaning it can be consumed by diabetics. It is also free from artificial flavours and contains prebiotic dietary fibres, which are associated with good digestive health.

‘An investment in health’: Asian start-up launches natural sweetener during COVID-19 pandemic

According to the company’s head of sales, Dominic Plana, it has the same taste as refined, white sugar. “We wanted to get rid of the mindset that if a food is healthy, it has to taste bad,” he said.

Swiftlet has a young team spread across Southeast Asia, and is based in the Filipino capital of Manila, where its manufacturing facilities are located; Hanoi, Vietnam where the R&D division is based; and Singapore. It was founded by a group of family friends and began operations last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This created a challenging business environment but allowed it to capitalise on the home cooking boom, explained two of its co-founders, Plana and Minh Le, who is head of R&D.

Swiftlet launched the sweetener in the Philippines in September last year as a consumer-facing product, however in 2021 it plans to develop a B2B business, supplying manufacturers in the Philippines and beyond, said Plana. It currently has a production capacity of several tons a day that it can increase based on demand.

According to Le, Swiftlet’s natural sweetener fetches a price premium but is competitively priced when compared to other natural sugar alternatives.

“We don’t hold sugar as a comparison point when pricing the product because that’s not the standard we are pursuing,” he said, speaking to The Ingredients Network from Hanoi. “We are a healthier ingredient. You are not just eating it because of the taste but also because of the health concerns so, of course, we expect the price to be higher than regular sugar. We look at it as an investment in health.”

Swiftlet’s exact formulation is patent pending and the company is trying to keep details under wrap until the patents are granted. However, it says the sweetener is made entirely from natural plant and agricultural product extracts that are already sold on the market as food ingredients, all of which have been approved for the food market by international regulatory authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

According to Le, the alternative sweetener’s functionality comes from both Swiftlet’s choice of ingredients and the process it uses to blend them.

“The reason why we decided to go with a blend is because of the application benefits. These ingredients are sold on the market separately but the way [they] measure compared to sugar is not up to par and the taste doesn’t come close,” he said. “Our technology allows us to blend in such a way that we can create synergies […] and a taste profile that, according to our sensory tests, comes close to refined sugar.”

The fact that Swiftlet’s sweetener caramelises and browns as sugar does was “a pleasant surprise” for the R&D team, Le explained, as it had not initially factored in this functionality. This was later confirmed by a Filipino chef who tested the ingredient in various dishes and reported that it resembled caramelised sugar.

Le said Swiftlet’s sweetener also blends well in dalgona coffee, a frappé-style beverage made with instant coffee that is whipped with hot water, sugar and milk. The drink surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia thanks to social media shares. The name is derived from a Korean honeycomb called dalgona that is typically used, but which can be substituted for sugar – or, as Le suggests, Swiftlet’s natural sweetener.

Plana and Le said one of the biggest formulation challenges when developing the ingredient was ensuring it could be used in the same ratio as refined sugar in order to make substitutions easier, particularly in home cooking and baking. Swiftlet’s replacement also has the same appearance and texture of white, refined sugar and can be used in a variety of applications including baking, desserts, hot and cold beverages and sauces, it says.

The start-up recommends storing it in the refrigerator to ensure a cool temperature and avoid exposure to direct sunlight.

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