It looks and tastes a lot like sugar, but tagatose may have a nutritional edge over the sucrose that typically sweetens coffee, cookies and Coca-Cola.
Bonumose, a Charlottesville startup, hopes to become the world’s leading producer of tagatose, a natural sweetener that is 92 percent as sweet as sugar but has just 38 percent of the calories.
“This is not a niche product,” said CEO Ed Rogers. “At its current price, it is. But we can bring the price down to make it affordable for all and available globally.”
Tagatose is usually produced using lactose from milk. Bonumose’s proprietary method instead uses cornstarch, potentially lowering production costs by 80 percent.
Rogers said making tagatose more affordable could help to prevent chronic health conditions linked to sugar consumption, including diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.
Tagatose doesn’t have the chemical flavors of artificial sweeteners, nor the bitter aftertaste of stevia. Trace amounts of tagatose are naturally present in milk and in some fruits.
“It’s not ‘fake’ or weird tasting,” Rogers said.
The Food and Drug Administration has recognized tagatose as a safe food additive that does not promote dental cavities.
Tagatose also might benefit digestive health as a prebiotic; multiple studies have shown that tagatose promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
“It’s still not something you want to gorge on,” Rogers said. “People still should be encouraged to ‘sweeten responsibly.’”
Many Americans were introduced to tagatose through a Diet Pepsi Slurpee that debuted at 7-Eleven stores in 2003. The flavor was discontinued after only a few years on the market.
“That product failed, in part because sugar was not as demonized then as it is today,” said Dan Wichelecki, chief scientific officer at Bonumose. “The main reason that other products using tagatose have failed is that tagatose is too expensive.”
Tagatose currently retails for about $26 per kilogram, while the same amount of sugar sells for less than 50 cents. Wichelecki said Bonumose aims to bring down the price of tagatose to about $3 per kilogram.
After receiving his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Illinois in 2014, Wichelecki became a research scientist at Cell-Free Bioinnovation, a startup in Blacksburg using enzyme-catalyzed reactions to generate energy and manufacture chemical compounds.
Soon after his arrival in Blacksburg, Wichelecki discovered a series of chemical reactions that produced tagatose from cornstarch.
“I think it’s something many scientists could have thought of,” Wichelecki said. “Simple solutions are usually the best ones — you just have to be the first one to find it. I knew different pieces of the puzzle that no one else in the world knew, just by happenstance.”
Rogers, a business consultant for Cell-Free Bioinnovation, recommended forming a spinoff company that focused exclusively on making rare sugars. “That way, when companies invested in us, they would know exactly what that money was going towards,” Wichelecki said.
Rogers holds bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Virginia. He previously founded FoodSource Lure, a company in Birmingham, Alabama, that makes fishing lures from biodegradable proteins and foodstuffs.
Rogers said the “blockbuster potential” of Wichelecki’s discoveries motivated him to embark upon another entrepreneurial journey.
“The opportunity is immense,” Rogers said. “We think it’s going to do a lot of good and create a lot of wealth and employment opportunities.”
Wichelecki said Bonumose could be the first business to mass-produce a commodity with a cascade of enzyme reactions. He said this process requires less energy and doesn’t produce the harsh acids that are sometimes generated by chemical manufacturing.
“If we prove that this works, it will open doors for other things that can be done enzymatically,” he said.
Bonumose has filed for U.S. and global patents that would enable the company to apply the same technology to other healthy sugars and food ingredients.
Bonumose moved into a lab and offices at the UVa Research Park earlier this month. Rogers and Wichelecki said they expect to hire several employees soon.
Rogers said the company’s future manufacturing facilities likely would have to be established near a corn wet-milling facility. However, there are no such facilities in Virginia.
Wet-milling separates corn into its four basic components: starch, germ, fiber and protein. Wichelecki said Bonumose could avoid shipping costs by having starch pumped directly from a corn refinery to the tagatose manufacturing facility.
“Virginia grows enough corn that it could support our operation here,” Rogers said. “But it would need to have that [wet-milling] done to it.”
Virginia produced 50 million bushels of corn last year. Several states in the Corn Belt in the Midwest produce well over 1 billion bushels annually.
Bonumose has not yet produced tagatose in sufficient quantities to perform taste tests and other quality controls. However, Rogers said some of the world’s largest food and ingredient companies already have expressed interest in partnering with Bonumose.
“We are seeking capital from strategic investors … who have more to contribute than just money,” Rogers said. “We want to partner with companies that have the knowledge to manufacture and sell food products.”