Growing Ideas: Miracle berries’ no-cal sweetness

Miraculex extracts zero calorie sweetness from berries

When Alan Perlstein’s grandmother underwent chemotherapy in the 1990s, Perlstein had no idea that the solution he found to her loss of taste could trigger a revolution in how the US sweetens its food and beverages.

Alan Perlstein is CEO of Miraculex, a California-based start-up that aims to improve the nutritional value and flavor of food with plant protein-based sweeteners. “When my grandmother was sick, she lost her sense of taste. I looked online to find out how I could restore it and came across rare fruits growing in tropical rainforests that claimed to be 2,000 times as sweet as sugar.”

He ordered some of the berries and was ‘blown away’ by the intensity of the flavor. Even better: “my grandmother could taste food again for the first time in months”.

“We want to be everywhere sugar is”

- Jason Ryder, co-founder, Miraculex

Biotechnology and berries

Driven by a desire to help other cancer patients, Perlstein, an entrepreneur with a background in biotechnology, started growing the miracle berries, Synsepalum dulcificum, in his New York basement and explored potential applications.

After a decade of tinkering, Perlstein founded Miraculex in 2014 based on the idea of using plants and fermentation to produce functional proteins like miraculin, a natural sweetener and taste modifier found in the berries. With early success and help from seed funding, Perlstein moved Miraculex from New York to San Francisco in 2016 to push the technology further. The company has since grown and moved its operations to the bustling food and agtech hub of Davis, California.

CPG interest

Jason Ryder, a seasoned veteran of industrial biotech and food tech, joined the company as co-founder and Chief Technology Officer in early 2018. Why did he join Miraculex? “Obesity is a growing problem all over the US,” he says. “No-one is happy with the amount of sugar in our food and drinks, or with the taste of the artificial sweeteners on the market. We think Miraculin provides the answer.”

With applications in packaged foodstuffs from ice cream and candy to alcohol, yoghurt and sodas, CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies are ‘really excited’ says Ryder. “They all know sugar is a problem and that artificial sweeteners taste terrible."

Bringing the product to market

Miraculex’s team of biologists, biochemists and fermentation scientists is currently working in Davis to develop the application of miraculin and another plant-based sweetener, brazzein.

But how to launch the sweeteners on the market? The firm was a winner at Rabobank's FoodBytes! pitch contest in San Francisco in March 2018, and is currently working with CPGs, manufacturing partners and customers to commercialize its first products. It is also pursuing approval from the US Food & Drug Administration and GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status.

Pitching Miraculex: Jason Ryder and Alan Perlstein at FoodBytes! in March 2018.

Strategic partnerships

Ryder and Perlstein are now looking for funding to scale up and commercialize products even further, while driving costs down. They are also building a robust supply chain and preparing product launches for the coming years.

“Beyond those horizons, we’ll be developing low-cost protein sweeteners to give us a broader reach,” says Ryder. “That means more strategic partnerships with CPGs, to develop co-branded products, for example. We want to be everywhere sugar is.”