COMING from a family with a history of diabetes, Alan Phua is well aware of the dangers of eating too much refined carbohydrates.
But the co-founder of local startup Alchemy Foodtech is also aware that Hainanese chicken rice cooked with brown rice or wholegrain char kway teow falls short of satisfying.
And many food-loving Singaporeans seem to agree.
Since 2010, the government has been encouraging the consumption of whole grains amid an uptick in the number of cases of diabetes. Despite the public education drives, only 8 per cent of rice consumed by Singaporeans is brown.
Mr Phua told The Business Times in an interview: "After years of educational campaigns, people still can't breach that 8 per cent. It shows that it's not really an awareness problem.
"People know that white carbs are not good, but the alternatives are not satisfactory to them, simply because a lot of Asian dishes just don't work well with brown rice or noodles."
With that, he set out to, as he says, "turn bad carbs into good carbs" while retaining the original taste, texture and colour of the refined grains that consumers still prefer.
Alchemy Foodtech was founded in 2015. He and his co-founder Verleen Goh developed a functional ingredient that can be added to food staples to lower their overall glycemic index (GI). Low- to medium-GI foods (such as brown rice) are digested at a slower rate, and so prevent spikes in blood sugar.
Alchemy's core product, 5ibrePlus, is a powder-blend additive made from plant fibres and extracts. It can be added during the flour-mixing stage when processed carbs like noodles and bread are being manufactured.
"We substitute only a little of the flour with our product. The whole manufacturing process remains the same, which lets consumers enjoy essentially the same product," he said.
The patent-pending 5ibrePlus can also be shaped into rice grains and mixed with white rice.
A 9 per cent replacement of white rice grains with Alchemy's grains is enough to lower the GI level to that of brown rice without compromising on taste and texture, said Mr Phua.
5ibrePlus is expected to be awarded its patent in the coming months, and is to be launched early next year under a new name. The cost of food products treated with 5ibrePlus will be similar to regular products, because new equipment is not needed in the manufacturing process.
The firm has signed letters of intent with some 20 companies, including bakery Gardenia and restaurant chain Han's Cafe, to develop healthier versions of their food. These partners have undertaken to reflect the Alchemy branding on their food packaging.
Alchemy will aim to become the "Intel of the food industry", he quipped: "When people see a laptop with the Intel logo, they know it's powered by a good processor. Similarly, when people see a loaf of bread with our logo, we want them to know it's backed by good protection."
Mr Phua believes viable market opportunities exist for lower-GI food staples in the region.
High-GI carbs such as white rice and noodles account for nearly a third of the total calories in a typical Asian diet. The bad news for rice-loving Asians, however, is that eating a bowl of white rice every day raises the risk of diabetes by 11 per cent, says the Harvard School of Public Health.
Nearly 10 per cent of Singaporeans are diabetic, and 80 per cent of these people have Type 2 diabetes, which is typically caused by a diet rich in refined carbs.
"Food is really the main culprit here," said Mr Phua.
Leading the fight against diabetes is both a business and personal goal for him. Both his grandmothers died from health complications caused by the disease. And five of his mother's six siblings are currently living with Type 2 diabetes.
A global epidemic
"Of course, nobody would want to fund me just to protect my own family, so fortunately, or unfortunately, diabetes is now a global epidemic that more people are starting to care about."
Alchemy is backed by Heritas Capital Management, Enterprise Singapore venture arm SEEDS Capital, Shanghai-based foodtech accelerator and venture capital fund Bits x Bites, among other angels.
The firm raised S$2.5 million in pre-series A funding last year. Most of these funds were channelled into the opening of its foodtech laboratory, CookLab@Alchemy, at the Science Park in January this year.
As Alchemy gears up to enter the local food scene in early 2020, Mr Phua has already set his sights on China, where nearly one in three adults live with diabetes.
"The Singapore market is rather small, so we have to plan ahead. People from China also tend to attach a high level of trust in Singapore's bio and food tech," he said.
Apart from the war against diabetes, Alchemy's food-tech solutions will also be expanded to target other diseases in future.
"In the long run, we want to be seen as the food-ingredient guys who protect people from all kinds of food-related diseases."