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Zsweet Natural Sweetener

Many of us have a sweet tooth but may not be able to enjoy the foods we like too often because of the effects on our blood sugar, our health, and our waistlines.

Inventor Tim Avila has developed a product he hopes will change that for many people. His calorie-free sweetener, Zsweet®, not only looks like sugar but also measures like it, feels like it, has the same crystalline texture and leaves no chemical aftertaste.

Born in 1966, Avila graduated high school but did not attend college. While working as a salesman for the nutrition firm Metagenics in San Clemente, California in the late 1980s, he learned about what went into creating a new foodstuff. He became very interested in the idea of offering a sweetener that might appeal as a real, honest-to-goodness substitute for sugar to be used in its place, measure for measure, for cooking, baking, and as an ingredient in packaged foods.

He knew there was already a number of popular no-calorie or low-calorie sweeteners in the marketplace, such as Equal, Splenda, saccharine, and Sweet N’Low. However many of these are heavy on chemicals, do not resemble actual sugar at all in terms of measure or texture, and leave an unpleasant aftertaste. In addition, as many of them use a sugar-based ingredient such as dextrose to carry their sweetening components, some are not appropriate for use by those with blood glucose issues.

As a result, these products turn off many consumers who might otherwise use sugar substitutes to help control conditions such as diabetes or obesity. With four members of his own family afflicted with diabetes and a growing population of those affected by this disease, he realized there was a major need for a product that might help. In 2001, he quit his job at Metagenics to set out on his own as a food-manufacturing consultant, working for clients including Nestlé and Procter & Gamble.

Meanwhile, Avila began experimenting in his kitchen, focusing on a substance known as erythritol, which is derived from fermented glucose; in other words, a sugar alcohol. He developed a formula that blends erythritol with fruit extracts, and unveiled the results in 2004. He filed for a patent (pending) and dubbed his product Zsweet all-natural. Also that year, Avila formed Ventana Health, Inc., to launch Zsweet as a high-end, natural, no-calorie sugar substitute. He raised nearly $1 million in venture capital to get the firm off the ground. He began marketing the product using guerrilla techniques, posting information about Zsweet on Web sites, leaving samples in coffee shops, and talking it up at industry gatherings.

In 2007, Avila offered Zsweet samples at Expo West, a natural products show in Anaheim, Calif., where he gained a great deal of attention. Though he has some marketing hurdles to overcome -- the product is somewhat pricier than other sugar substitutes and some nutritionists have cautioned that its ingredients may be known to cause some intestinal distress -- interest has been strong among a variety of grocery chains and large retail outlets. As of this 2008 writing, Zsweet is available for purchase online and through distributors such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats and other health-food stores.

Avila continues to work on developing additional products at Ventana, including smoothies and nutrition bars made with Zsweet. At the same time, he works as a senior innovation strategist with IMAGINutrition, a Laguna Niguel, Calif., firm focused on identifying and developing natural bioactives for the commercial food market. He lives in Dana Point, Calif., with his family.

[February 2008]

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