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The Upcycler: This sugar alternative made from discarded plants boosts your fiber intake and is kinder to Earth

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It’s hard to kick the sugar habit entirely, even when we know our lives can be much healthier without the dozen-plus teaspoons many of us consume daily in cookies, our coffee and sodas and in most processed food we use for meal shortcuts.

In just the U.S., the average adult, teenager and child takes in about 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or about 270 calories. While we sometimes add sugar or sweeteners to food or beverages, most of our intake comes from processed and prepared foods, says Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the American Heart Association. Yet sugar brings us joy, in our birthday cakes, Halloween treats and even to enliven savory recipes.

What if we can rethink sugar? That’s what The Supplant Company, a food startup pushing initially into baking chocolate, snack chocolate and packaged cookies but looking for wider kitchen use, has done by grinding up the typically rejected portion of crops and plants.

Rethinking sugar can mean cutting down on how much of it we eat. But change can come by reconsidering how we source sugar and sweeteners. Right now, that’s mostly through sugar cane and sugar beets, as well as high-fructose corn syrup. And then there are artificial sweeteners, which chemically reproduce the sweetening taste of sugar but carry different properties than crop-generated sugars. Still, they can introduce the same negative long-term impacts on our bodies without moderation.

Use the entire plant

Sugary diets aren’t our only challenge. Food waste in much of the developed world, the U.S. in particular, is widespread, fueling extra costs for households and worsening food inequality in a wealthy nation that should have no problem feeding its own population. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, Americans thow away more than $218 billion each year on food. Yet, more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the U.S. are food insecure, the USDA says.

For the scientists and their team at The Supplant Company, their approach to sugar addresses a nutritional dilemma and aims to make a dent in the food waste challenge.

“ ‘The only macronutrient that humans don’t get enough of without supplements is fiber.’”

— Dr. Tom Simmons

Supplant has tapped the world’s most renewable resource: the fibrous portion of crops, such as stems, stalks, husks and cobs that may be ground into animal feed or animal bedding, but most often are left to decompose in the field or in the waste bins of food-processing plants. And, in the case of rice paddies, the remaining vegetation is often just burned off on site.

“Supplant collects these often unused agricultural side streams from farmyards, forests and food facilities to be ground down into manageable chunks so that the fiber inside is easily accessible,” said Dr. Tom Simmons, founder at Supplant who previously spent roughly a decade in academic research around waste reduction.

The rest of the conversion, drawing out the natural sugars in the fibrous plants, is proprietary to Supplant. But the nutrional significance is explained: the fiber-derived sugar behaves like traditional sugar in food but retains certain fiber-based qualities. It’s lower in calories because fiber is; it has a lower glycemic response because fiber does; and it’s prebiotic because fiber is.

“The only macronutrient that humans don’t get enough of without supplements is fiber,” Simmons said. “And yet at the same time, fiber is the most abundant thing produced by the food system and we just throw it away. Our whole food system is really sort of topsy turvy in a really strange way.”

Probiotics and prebiotics are both big topics in nutrition these days. Yet even though they sound similar, the two play different roles. At their most basic, probiotics are beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics are food for these bacteria. Learn more from the Mayo Clinic.

World’s thirstiest crop

Rethinking the traditional sugar crops can also potentially benefit sustainability and environmentally regenerative agriculture. As one of the world’s thirstiest crops, sugar cane has a significant impact on many environmentally sensitive regions, like the Mekong Delta and the Atlantic Forest, the World Wildlife Fund says.

Corn, soybeans and other crops that feed animals and mostly make oils and syrups for human consumption require irrigation too, but far less than sugar-specific crops.

And farming, broadly, has the global carbon footprint that comes with harvesting and shipping.

To that end, renewed talk of local, even hyper-local, food sourcing has only gained traction in recent years. What’s more, MarketWatch asked Simmons if the legacy of harvesting sugar, and similarly, palm oil for baking, in mostly formerly colonized parts of the world for Western consumption factors in the thought process behind his sourcing.

“There is going to be 2 billion more people on the planet by 2050. That means we need 50% more food, but we don’t have 50% more land. ”

Simmons said geopolitics isn’t his priority, but it’s an important factor. Even recent headlines as resource- and agricultural-rich Ukraine came under Russian attack might convince more food growers to think of more efficient use of their crops, which will empower them to be less reliant on the whims of global markets.

“All of a sudden, there’s a major supply issue around the production of this sort of base commodity [such as Ukraine’s wheat], crops that supply our food system,” he said. “Every nation has to some degree its own its own food supply. And this basic premise of upcycling food waste, the agricultural inefficiencies of side streams [or the leftovers from harvest], that’s a localized issue across every single nation [and] that can help ameliorate the supply-chain issues.”

Plus, he says, there’s going to be 2 billion more people on the planet by 2050. That means we need 50% more food, but we don’t have 50% more land.

No doubt, sustainability and considered sourcing of food is drawing a premium. Supplant has had a partnership with Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, where its chocolate featured in ice creams and baked offerings.

The bars aren’t exclusive to a Michelin-starred chef. Home bakers and chocolate-lovers can order Supplant on the company’s site or on Amazon.com.

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