For decades food manufacturers have sought a substitute for fat to make their products healthier and sell in greater volumes.
After all, who wouldn’t chow-down more potato chips or cookies if they had fewer calories?
This quest to find what’s good for consumers' bottoms, as well as the bottom line, has often failed, however, due to poor taste or intestinal issues. But an Indianapolis-based company thinks it has the solution.
Choco Finesse LLC has obtained the Food and Drug Administration's "Generally Regarded as Safe" confirmation for a fat replacement branded as Epogee, designed for use in a wide variety of foods. The product is touted to cut calories by up to 45 percent per serving, and fat by up to 80 percent.
Epogee is set to go on the market next year, first in a line of chocolate coatings by Chicago-based Blommer Chocolate Co., which bills itself as North America’s largest cocoa processor and ingredient chocolate supplier.
To create the product, Choco Finesse reconfigures the structure of the fat molecules in GMO-free vegetable oil so they are less likely to be digested as quickly—and therefore less likely to make people fat.
Epogee “really tastes like fat because it’s made from fat,” said Choco Finesse founder and President David Rowe, a former Dow AgroSciences executive, and “Julia Child said fat gives food flavor."
Taste without nasty side-effects
Snack food junkies worth their salt will remember how the food industry salivated over the potential of fat substitutes introduced in the 1990s. And they weren’t necessarily good memories.
Procter & Gamble commercialized the fat substitute olestra, which was approved by the FDA in the mid-1990s and marketed as Olean. It was used in several lines of Frito-Lay potato chips.
Some consumers liked the taste, but reported cramps and loose stools after eating the chips. Scientific data indicated that olestra depleted fat soluble vitamins, requiring vitamin supplementation to offset depletion.
In an FDA filing early last year, Choco Finesse took care to draw a sharp contrast between the older chemical class of fat substitutes and those in its new product, also known as EPG.
The expert panel, which included professors from Tufts University, Indiana University School of Medicine and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, concluded that in comparison to olestra, Epogee does not interfere with vitamin absorption, nor does it have the properties that caused olestra to be linked to digestive issues.
Versions of Epogee intended for confectionary use have melting points above 102 degrees and remain solid at the typical human body temperature, according to the report. And Epogee is a modified triglyceride similar in structure to the fat it's intended to replace, while olestra is a hybrid molecule of sucrose, the panel told the FDA.
“As a result, [Epogee does] not exhibit the untoward and untidy gastrointestinal effects associated with olestra consumption," the report said.
That’s a rather indelicate distinction not likely to show up in advertising for Epogee.
But it’s an important one, said Steve Crane, an investor in Choco Finesse from Indianapolis.
“These are all problems that don’t exist with EPG …. It’s a vastly superior product for fat replacement,” Crane said, explaining his interest in Epogee.
Research spans decades
He and Rowe also point to a long period of research that will have preceded Epogee’s market rollout.
The compound itself was first developed by ARCO Chemical Co. in the 1980s as a way to replace triglyceride fats in food. ARCO struck a research agreement with Best Foods, though that research was dropped in the mid-1990s for financial reasons, according to Choco Finesse’s FDA submission.
Work resumed in 2003 by a group affiliated with Kansas State University. Rowe said he was approached by Kansas State in 2009, with his Indianapolis start-up gaining development rights to commercialize Epogee.
Rowe said he was pleasantly surprised to that so much research had been conducted by ARCO and Best Foods in cooperation with the FDA—more than 1,000 pages of valuable data. Choco Finesse holds 14 patents related to Epogee.
Last year the FDA signed off on the first proposed use: for confectionary products. In September came the OK for peanut butter and baking products and such things as nutrition bars.
Until recently, “we’ve been in stealth mode,” Rowe said.
Last February Choco Finesse launched a $2.3 million offering, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. It shows the company has raised $286,656 so far.
Much of the work has been done on the cheap. Technically, Rowe is the only employee. Work is done by a variety of partner firms, including South Carolina-based Tetramer Technologies, which recently received a $642,688 grant from the National Science Foundation to look at optimizing the technology in food manufacturing.
Rowe rattles off from memory how many pounds of capacity exist in the food industry and what part of that Epogee might grab. Conservatively, the company is eyeing a $1 billion sliver of it for now. Rowe said he’s being careful not to let his eyes get too big—but with an obesity epidemic on the rise in the U.S., he sees plenty of potential.
Choco Finesse also could be a home run for Indiana’s agbiosciences sector, said Beth Bechdol, president and CEO of accelerator AgriNovus Indiana. Bechdol noted that consumers are hungry for food options that promote better health and provide a practical option to limit fat and calories.