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New fermentation technology can replace sugar with sweet protein - but what do consumers think of it?

With the help of precision fermentation, it is possible to create protein that is up to 10,000 times sweeter than sugar. This means that just about half of milligram of sweet protein can substitute one teaspoon of sugar. Researchers are trying to find out, if consumers will accept food products based on the new technology, and how this can be influenced by market communication.

Photo: Colourbox

For centuries, people have used fermentation to produce food and drinks, and it is still the underlying process that we use today when making beer, wine and yoghurts.

Precision fermentation goes one step further. It is a new way of using microorganisms to produce specific functional ingredients – such as proteins. In fact, it is now possible to create protein that is up to 10,000 times sweeter than sugar, and just about half a milligram of this protein can substitute one teaspoon of sugar.

With diabetes being a major global concern and sugar production having a negative impact on the environment, precision fermentation could contribute to a healthier and more sustainable future.

An international research team, funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT Food), are currently working to design and optimize precision fermentation processes and to assess the developed products to ensure that they are suitable for mass production - and thereby provide more sustainable nutrition.

As part of this project Associate Professor Marija Banovic from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University is responsible for a cross-national consumer study to find out, how such products will be received, and how this can be influenced by market communication.

- We can use precision fermentation methods to produce proteins, which have specific and improved features, such as being hypoallergenic, healthier and better tasting. Precision fermentation is expected to be more sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly. It has the ability to transform the food sector. However, if this is to happen, consumers must accept the new technology and be willing to buy food products based on it. The purpose of our study is to find out, whether this is the case, and what we can do to influence the perception of the consumers, she says.

Sustainability matters

The consumer study consists of an online experimental survey among a nationally representative sample of consumers in Denmark, Germany and Poland.

In the study, consumers were been presented with different descriptions of the precision fermentation technology, highlighting different aspects that could be used in market communication. In these descriptions, precision fermentation was presented as a sustainable and environmentally friendly process that could be adapted to any location, and with the ability to produce 100 % pure protein. This information is based on documentation from the industry partner Amai proteins.

Based on the different descriptions, the researchers can compare how these aspects affect consumer acceptance of the new technology.

- We are currently in the process of analyzing the data, but we can see that in general, across all three countries, consumer acceptance of precision fermentation is satisfactory. The acceptance is positively influenced by the trust in the producer and by the perceived benefits that come from precision fermentation, but negatively influenced by some of the consumer’s feelings towards this technology, such as skepticism. We can also see that consumer acceptance is significantly higher for messages related to sustainability, Marija Banovic says and adds:

- Our data shows that the Danes are the most willing to accept precision fermentation, followed close by the Germans. The Polish consumers are significantly more sceptic than the two other.  

Sugar reduction appeals to the consumers

In the survey, different purposes of sweet protein have also been highlighted to assess the possibility of sugar reduction among consumers.

- In our preliminary results, we can see that the consumers are quite positive towards sweet protein as a tool for sugar reduction. The pleasure that the consumer gets from eating sugar is influencing this positively: The more you appreciate eating food products with sugar, the more you are interested in replacing the sugar content with sweet protein, Marija Banovic says:

- In this case, the Polish consumers seem to be more positive towards the use of sweet protein for sugar reduction than the Danish and German consumers are. We know that claims of reduced sugar content are used much more often in Poland than in Denmark and Germany, which indicates that this is generally more important for Polish consumers.

Ice cream more interesting than protein drink

Furthermore, the consumers have been asked which food products with sweet protein that they would buy, and the winners are products such as ice cream and snacks. On the other end of the scale, we find products such as sauces and protein drinks.

The results are similar across all three countries, and they show that consumers in general would be willing to buy these products, if the sweet protein replaces sugar.

- We will use our findings to further investigate the most popular food products in a new study, where we will include more product attributes. This could be different levels of sugar and protein content, - all communicated in different ways, Marija Banovic explains.

The final results from the MAPP Centre will be published in the end of the year.

Additional information

We strive to ensure that all our articles live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication (scroll down to find the English version on the website). Because of this the article will be supplemented with the following information:

Study type

 

Online experimental survey

Funding

 

The project is funded by EIT Food.

You can read more about EIT Food on the official website.

Collaborators

 

MAPP Centre, Aarhus University

Lund University, Sweden

Amai Proteins (food production), Israel

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Maspex (food production), Poland

Maspex, Amai Proteins, VTT and Lund University are responsible for aspects of the project, which are related to food science, while the MAPP Centre is responsible for the consumer study.

Read more

 

You can read more on the official website for the EIT Food project “Precision Fermentation: From Biotechnology to Sustainable Nutrition” here

Contact

 

Associate Professor Marija Banovic, MAPP Centre, Aarhus University - maba@mgmt.au.dk - phone: +4587165215