Powering the low GI food revolution

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 31, 2019 - January 06, 2020.
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Sector: Wellness and biotechnology

Addressable market:  NA

Intellectual property status: A patent in the US, Europe, India, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Australia, with a patent pending in China.

Product description and USP:  Holista Colltech has developed low GI food products to help combat obesity and diabetes.

Currently exporting: Yes, to the US, Canada, China, South Korea and Australia

Industry challenges: Funding, human capital, changing people’s mindsets about healthy foods

 

Did you know that a typical bowl of rice has the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar and roti canai, the equivalent of 3½? Datuk Dr Rajen Manicka does. In fact, he says that on an average day, Malaysians easily consume 50 teaspoons of sugar, which is too much for the body to handle.

Rajen did not come to this realisation overnight. At 28, he was a fresh pharmaceutical graduate who thought he knew everything about drugs. But he developed a skin condition that did not respond to the usual pharmaceutical remedies. His mother urged him to visit a homeopath, which went against his principles as a believer in modern medicine, but he eventually gave in.

“I spent RM30 on the medicine he prescribed, which was a lot in 1987. Previously, when I took medication for two years, the rash would reduce about 20% a month. But after taking this man’s medicine, I was 80% cured. I could not believe it,” Rajen recalls.

He soon realised that he did not know as much as he had thought. After some soul searching, he decided to investigate further. “I started looking at wellness, healing and eating habits. That was when I got into supplements, which I thought was a way people could take control of their health,” he says.

People were diligent when it came to consuming supplements, but they were still eating the wrong food, Rajen observed. “This would be like using the best black oil in your car, but running it on kerosene. It would not run very well,” he points out.

So, he shifted his focus to nutrition.

Rajen pursued a doctorate on what he called the 4S Tsunami — starch, sugar, sodium and saturated fats — at a time when no-fat, high-protein diets were the latest fad. He noticed that what gave us the most energy were the three macronutrients of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

“I realised that all carbohydrates became sugar. And while sugar is fuel, it is toxic fuel. So, if you eat a lot of it and cannot store it, the body has no choice but to dilute it with excess water, convert it to cholesterol and triglycerides [short-term fat] or body fat [long-term fat], or even dispose of it with our urine,” says Rajen.

This is how common modern-day diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity start, he points out. “It all comes from excess carbohydrates in our diet.”

This led him to the low glycaemic index (GI) diet. “I realised that every diet that worked — whether it was Atkins [low in carbohydrates, high in protein], keto or paleo diet — were all low-GI diets. Low GI is the mother of all diets,” says Rajen.

He points out that no one would ever see a fat caveman because everything he ate was very low GI food. A caveman’s diet generally consisted of what was around them such as vegetables, nuts, eggs and meat. These had low sugar levels, keeping him alert, robust and healthy.

Fast forward to the present day, Rajen says the 4S Tsunami is what drives fast food establishments because a combination of these foods causes the body to crave for more. For example, a doughnut is not just sugar but starch as well, and that combination “makes people go crazy”.

He then engaged with researchers to develop low GI baked goods. The trick was to get the food to taste the same but behave differently in the body. Being familiar with the Indian style of eating, he started from there. “We looked at botanicals such as ladies’ fingers, lentils and fenugreek — the components of an Indian thali meal,” he says.

From there, he developed a blend of these ingredients to add to the baked goods, which keeps them from being digested too quickly, unlike typical breads.

How does it work? One, it makes the starches more difficult to access and so these will not break down so easily. Two, it slows the progress of the food so that it does not move quickly within a person’s system. Three, it affects a person’s insulin and hormone levels to prevent any rapid changes.

“Fundamentally, I want to teach people that eating is not complicated. It is meant to be moderate. If you eat the right portions containing all three macronutrients, you will be in good health. And whenever you want to indulge, go for low GI bread, chapatti, roti canai and pizza so that you do not hurt your body even as you appease your tongue,” says Rajen.

He has patented the blend of ingredients and the patent is valid in Malaysia, Singapore, India, Taiwan and Australia, the US and Europe. His patent in China is still pending.

Rajen runs Petaling Jaya-based Holista Colltech Ltd, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. His company, Holista Biotech Sdn Bhd, did a reverse takeover of Australia-listed bio-industrial company CollTech Australia Ltd after the global financial crisis in 2009.

“We liked the idea of taking over an Australian company because Australia has a good name in this space. It has the largest number of low GI foods on the shelves,” says Rajen.

The company also has North American partners. In the US, it signed with Nadja Piatka of Nadja Foods, which was supplying low fat muffins to McDonald’s and Subway there. Nadja Foods has since been acquired by Quaker, but the muffins are still being sold. In fact, it is currently the best-selling muffin in Canada. Now, Piatka wants to repeat her success with low GI food.

In the last two years, Rajen has developed a joint venture with India-based Holista Ingredients to source the ingredients for its products. He is also in talks with people in South Korea and working with a company called HWH Global. Together, they are working to see if low GI products can be a viable business there.

In addition to baked goods, the company has produced low GI white bread, pizzas, muffins, biscuits and cookies. It has also developed low GI noodles, which was launched in China in August. “We are working on pastries in Malaysia, bread in Australia and muffins in North America,” says Rajen.

“We are also working on low GI bubble tea, where we bring the sugar down by 80% and the GI down by 50%, pastries and pizza as well as a range of organic noodles and baked goods. There is definitely a big market here that revolves around the organic space and it will be very China-focused because the country is becoming big in the organic space.”

Some of these products will be made available in Malaysia by the end of the year. “We work with Kawan Food Bhd to distribute the products. It already has a distribution network in supermarkets as well as in food services. So, it is a market leader,” says Rajen.

The company is also working to bring low GI noodles to Malaysia.

 

Brighter days ahead

It has been a long and arduous journey, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, says Rajen. Like other companies, his major challenge in going global has been a lack of human and financial capital.

“The global game is very difficult. We need to have the right talent and small companies are always at a disadvantage next to the big boys. We have been working with third-party agents in most places and we have a team in the US to build our operations there,” he adds.

This is a game that depends on the availability of resources. Even with the necessary capital, it is not a given that you will find the right people to drive the business.

The other challenge is that people tend to be incredulous when it comes to healthy food, says Rajen. Most have the impression that if something is healthy, it has to taste like cardboard. And that if it is both healthy and tasty, it has to be expensive.

“We have to change all this, but making this paradigm shift is difficult. The industry is very conservative and if something appears to work, they would not want to tweak it unnecessarily,” he says.

But consumers and industry players are becoming more interested, Rajen observes. “We are also being more efficient in the way we source ingredients. In Australia, we are pioneering the idea of affordable premium. So, if A$1 is the normal price, this product will be A$1.30,” he says.

Ultimately, Rajen believes that consumers will drive the demand for these products. “If we look at the rise of healthy food, high-fibre bread and gluten-free products, they were all driven by consumers.”