Alan Phua’s family has not had its run of luck with diabetes. Both his grandmothers passed away from diabetic complications, while a smattering of his relatives are also plagued by it. But he remains sanguine about this predisposition, because he has the power of science behind him. A sizeable chunk of the diabetic risk factors are unrelated to genetics, and Phua’s company, Alchemy Foodtech, is seizing upon that opportunity to prevent the chronic disease through food innovations.
He and his co-founder, chief food scientist Verleen Goh, invented alchemy fiber, a patented ingredient made from 100% plant-based ingredients such as corn, peas, and tapioca. Alchemy fiber can lower the glycemic index of food by increasing its total fiber and prebiotic content. The ingredient can be easily added into a range of carbohydrates—including rice, noodles, and bread, without compromising on taste, color, or texture.
“Many consumers are already educated on the dangers of consuming refined carbohydrates. Singapore, for example, launched a war on diabetes,” Phua said. “But even though they know they should be eating less white rice and more brown rice, many don’t, and the biggest reason is taste.”
Alchemy fiber has been endorsed by time-honored Singaporean food brands like Boon Tong Kee and Yum Cha. These household names have relied on recipes passed down from generation to generation to make their mark in Singapore’s food-obsessed landscape over the decades.
Now, alchemy fiber is available in five out of eight Boon Tong Kee outlets in Singapore. According to the company, taste tests and customer feedback show that food products don’t just maintain their previous taste with the addition of alchemy fiber, but taste better too. “When Yum Cha’s chef added alchemy fiber to congee, it tasted smoother. Similar flavor tests with Indian restaurants and nasi lemak brands indicate that taste improvements are more apparent in flavored rice,” said Phua.
Aside from restaurants, Alchemy Foodtech is looking to launch its alchemy fiber products across multiple channels.
“We launched alchemy fiber in July as a reaction to Singapore’s circuit-breaker [lockdown], which came as a shock to everyone. Before that, our business model was a purely business-to-business one,” said Phua. “When COVID-19 hit, we realized we had to develop business-to-consumer (B2C) products as more people stayed at home. More people started cooking and baking at home too.”
This spurred the company’s introduction of B2C products such as flour, rice, and pre-mixes. In addition, the firm is working with healthcare partners such as Raffles Medical to sell alchemy fiber in their pharmacies as well, with a view to introducing these products in their healthcare partners’ wards as well.
The company is riding a wave of opportunity because it contributes to Singapore’s plan to satisfy 30% of its nutritional needs with locally produced food by 2030. This helped it obtain significant financial and strategic support from the Singaporean government, such as a SGD 750,000 (USD 563, 500) research grant awarded by Enterprise Singapore. Aside from financial backing, the Singaporean government also tried to help the company get its day in the sun with generous endorsements, such as a showcase at the F1 Grand Prix.
Recently, much attention has been on alternative meats and proteins. But with carbohydrates making up between 45% and 60% of the average person’s nutritional intake, tackling this food group head on is important too. Phua thinks that operating in the carbohydrate space as a technology enabler gives his company an advantage over other businesses. “We don’t want to fight with established food conglomerates and brands, so we have strategic investors to enable us to collaborate. We also cooperate with many different [alternative] protein companies so that we can cross-promote each other.”
Alchemy Foodtech is on track to ramp up its growth plans with backing from a new batch of international investors. In December, the company announced the close of its seven-figure bridge round led by public-listed Thai Union Group PCL, alongside investors including Temasek-backed and Shanghai-based VC Bits x Bites; Fuschsia Venture Capital, the ventures arm of Muang Thai Group Holding; and South Korea-based Sunbo Partners.
“In Asia, there is already an entrenched belief that food is medicine, compared to the West where they are seen as two very distinct things. We do want to expand to the US, where diabetes rates are high, but our approach will have to be radically different there.” Consequently, the company’s goal is now to move overseas swiftly by working with strategic partners in Asia first, especially those in China.
But Phua and Goh are thinking big. Although they have gained traction in Singapore and big conglomerates have already noticed their potential, the company has a long road ahead. “We are starting with carbohydrates in using food innovations to address medical conditions,” said Phua. “But in the future, we are going to look at issues such as Alzheimer’s and Sarcopenia too, which might also be helped through food tech.”