On a recent Tuesday at 9 a.m., I did the unthinkable. I ate a milk chocolate bar for breakfast. Breaking off square by decadent square in the morning light felt rebellious, and I braced myself for a sugar high, an upset stomach, a day-long headache. But the crash never came. That’s because the bar I was eating wasn’t made from normal sugar or sugar substitute, but Supplant—a new type of sweetener made from plant fiber waste.
Supplant has bigger plans than just fueling one hungry editor’s morning writing sessions. The company aims to ease the unwanted health impacts of sugar while creating a more sustainable food system.
How (and why) to make sugar from fiber.
Supplant founder Thomas Simmons, Ph.D., first got the idea to start his company four years ago while working as a plant scientist. He was one of many researchers looking into ways to transform agricultural fibers—the structural parts of plants that protect the seeds inside—into usable products.
As it stands now, we eat a relatively small portion of the food that we grow. Ninety percent of the time, plant fibers like the cobs of corn or the stalks of wheat are thrown away, burned, or used around the farm for things like animal bedding.
These tough fibers are composed of sugar molecules that are held together in a way that is impossible for humans to digest, making them pretty worthless to us. But Simmons wondered if it was possible to give this material new value by breaking it down into edible sugars.
He proved it’s possible with Supplant. The product is made by physically crushing the plant fibers (sourced from farms in Europe) into smaller pieces—then recruiting fungi to break them down even further. These fungi produce enzymes that are uniquely equipped to break down the fiber on a molecular level, into chains that are short enough to resemble the sugar we’re used to.
The result is a white powder that tastes and acts just like table sugar but has half the calories. And, unlike other low-calorie sugar substitutes, it retains the natural properties of fiber (which most Americans aren’t getting the recommended daily intake of): It’s prebiotic with a relatively low glycemic index, meaning it’s less likely to spike blood sugar than a typical sweet treat.
The chocolate bar on my desk, made in partnership with chef Thomas Keller, is the first product to launch using the healthier and more sustainable sugar, but likely not the last.
Making edible treats like Supplant is just one way we can repurpose fiber waste on farms in the future. Other companies are also starting to do so for things like sustainable biofuels and building materials. But, as Simmons tells mbg, plant fiber is “the most abundant renewable resource we have on the planet” and the more ways we can find to use it, the better.
As far as the possibilities for sugars made from fiber, he says “The scale is sort of limitless.” For starters, they make for a delicious chocolate bar. And as I saw during a four-course tasting dinner at high-end restaurant Per Se, where Supplant is featured on the menu, they’re versatile: Even more savory dishes like baked beans and onion tarts benefited from the subtle sweetness.
Simmons hopes to continue to roll out the sugar in restaurants and Supplant branded products while also starting to replace the sugar currently in brand-name treats people reach for daily—cereals, cookies, etc.
“We’re really trying to get the word out that there’s something special here that everyone’s missing,” he tells mbg. The hope is that with the support of larger food companies, Supplant can drive up its production and drive down its cost (right now, the bars are priced at $19.99/2-pack) to get this healthy alternative into pantries nationwide. “That’s what you need to do if you really want to have an environmental and social impact,” he says.
Of course, cutting down on sugar—not just replacing it with something else—is essential to public health. (I am not vouching for eating chocolate for breakfast, by the way! Though, there are some proven benefits…) But as Simmons notes, the occasional sweet treat has become a fixture in our culture. “Are people prepared to not have a birthday cake but a birthday banana? And not a wedding cake but a wedding apple?” he jokes. “These things are just sort of with us. But if we can just make them better—both for us and the environment—that’s going to be the way forward.”