Thaumatin is a mixture of closely-related proteins extracted from the fruit of Thaumatococcus daniellii Benth. It is an odourless, cream-coloured powder and functions primarily as a sweetener and flavour enhancer.
The Thaumatococcus daniellii (T. Danielli) plant had been known from time immemorial in West Africa. The main factor limiting global Thaumatin production is the limited availability of T. danielli plant. At present, T. danelli is not widely cultivated and harvesting of the arils takes place in plants growing wild in rainforests of West Africa, ranging from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Current production process is substantially dependent on the availability and quality of the native plant from year to year, which limits thaumatin’s use as a sweetener.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records publication, it is the sweetest natural substance known to mankind. In most parts of the world, thaumatin is used as both sweeteners and ﬂavour enhancers. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives report claims that the protein is free from any toxic, genotoxic, or teratogenic effects. Thaumatin is currently used as a ﬂavour modiﬁer in food applications such as ice creams, chewing gum, dairy, pet foods, soft drinks, and to mask undesirable ﬂavour in food and pharmaceuticals. Thaumatin also helped reduce the bitter or sour taste of soy-based products and low-fat yogurt.
Speaking in an exclusive chat with Science Nigeria, Prof. Ogunsanwo A. of the forestry department, University of Ibadan, said T. daniellii is mostly cultivated for the leaves in this part of the world.
The expert said the lamina of the leaves is used for wrapping foods, pointing out that the petiole is used to weave mats and as building material and the entire leaf is also used for roofing.
According to him, the leaf and root sap are used as antidote against venoms, stings and bites. They are also used as sedative and for treating insanity.
“In Nigeria, the leaves are used for wrapping different types of food. Due to its phytoconstituents, it imparts a particular characteristic taste into foods associated with it. The trade in T. danielli provides domestic support to about 1 million families and serves as a source of occupation for about 75,000 women in different parts of Nigeria. The plant is popular in forest areas but has also been found to grow in planted forest areas, home gardens and under forest-based plantations.
“A major competitive demand to sustainable utilization of T. danielli even among the indigenous peoples in Nigeria is that T. danielli leaves are already facing competition with nylon and plastics as packaging materials, due to its scarcity. As a result, the need to promote sustainable development of this important plant in indigenous communities and as exotic in new ecological zones where it will be introduced has become imperative,” he said.
The university don pointed out that in view of its increasing application in the industry, the global production of thaumatin increased from 138.42 metric tons (MT) in 2012 to 169.07 MT in 2016.
“The Global Thaumatin market size has been estimated at USD 170 million in 2021. The global market is expected to reach USD 220 million by 2026 at a CAGR of 4.5 per cent. The main drivers supporting development in the global thaumatin market are the rapid consumption of dairy and non-dairy products and increased health awareness among consumers around the world. Others include macro-economic factors such as per capita income, emerging economies, changing lifestyles, and rapid urbanization,” he added.
On his part, the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim, said the council collaborated with relevant universities and research institutes, most especially, the Federal Institute of Industrial Research (FIIRO), Oshodi, Lagos, to develop a process technology for commercial extraction of thaumatin from the plant in an effort to ensure sustainable development of T. danielli.
He said the development was necessitated by the fact that the efforts by government to curb importation of sugar through the Sugar Master Plan enacted in 2012 with the aim of boosting domestic production of sugar and to attain self-sufficiency in 2020 had not been fully achieved.
He explained that in 2020, out of the estimated annual demand of 1.7 million tonnes of sugar, 93 per cent which amounted to 1.5 million tonnes were imported.
The RMRDC boss pointed out that the country expended $433.4 million on sugar importation during the period, saying this represented an increase of $51.1 million over what was expended in 2019.
“In addition, in a study reported by United Nations, the incidence of diabetes is increasing in Nigeria. The United Nation estimated the population of Nigeria in September 2017 as 193.3 million. The pooled diabetes mellitus among the populace was reported as 5.77 per cent which suggested that 11.2 million Nigerians (1 out of 17 adults) were living with the disease.
“To develop a cost-effective sweetener as a substitute for sugar, the council collaborated with a research team from Lagos State University, Lagos, to process the locally available thaumatococcus danielli, aril into thaumatin. The project involved the development of a cheap and efficient extraction and purification process for the production of thaumatin as a sweetener and flavour-enhancer for use in the food and beverage industry. Sequel to the successful completion of the project, PharmaDeko Nig. Plc, took up the challenge to process natural sweetener obtained from thaumatacoccus danielli plant for the production of non-calorific drinks and other pharmaceutical products,” he said.
Further to this, he added that the RMRDC conducted a comprehensive survey on the availability and cultivation of the plant in Nigeria. The results obtained indicated that while the plant grows extensively in the southern parts of Nigeria, it is becoming increasingly scarce as a result of over exploitation and inadequate knowledge of the methods of its propagation.
“As a result of these, RMRDC is promoting backward integration and the development of alternative sources that would lead to the reduction of the importation of sugar, sweeteners and flavour-enhancers. A major milestone achieved was the collaboration with GAMLA Nigeria Ltd, which has resulted into the acquisition of 100 hectares of land in Delta State for study on in- situ and ex-situ propagation of T. danielli. This effort was to guarantee sustainable raw material supply for the user industries,” he stated.
Ibrahim said the project had become timely and important in view of the reasons already advanced, adding, however, it also had become important that Nigeria plays a crucial role in the global supply of thaumatin in the post COVID – 19 era.
According to him, this is based on the fact that T. danielli is indigenous to West Africa, and Nigeria is one of the countries that the plant is found in situ. In addition, the present administration is determined to ensure that Nigeria’s economy become sustainable in the post COVID-19 era.
“One of the ways this can be achieved is for the country to target development of industries where it has comparative advantage for optimal development. As a result, the council is currently promoting investment in T. danielli production and processing.
“A number of farmers in the southern part of the country have shown interest in the cultivation of the plant while the council at present has four committed investors that have shown interest in the processing side of the plant. The council hopes that all things being equal, both the production and processing would be stabilized locally within the next 3 years. This is expected to save the country more than N20 billion annually in foreign exchange equivalent,” he added.