As a baker and foodie, Verleen Goh’s passion for food goes beyond getting the perfect Instagram photo. Her vision? Using food to improve the lives of others.
“I’ve always seen food to be something like long-term medication. If you eat right, you’ll be able to live a long and healthy life,” said Verleen, 30.
But not everyone eats right and she acknowledges that it is difficult to change the way people consume food because it is a habitual and cultural matter. That, and her worry about the rise of diabetes in the population, led to her current mission: To change the food we eat while retaining its colour, taste and texture.
She explained: “When people think of diabetes, the first thing that literally comes to mind is sugar. And for the older generation, they think they won’t get it because they do not take sweet stuff, but they don’t realise that the rice or noodles they eat contains starch, which gets converted to glucose and spikes the blood glucose level almost as quickly as drinking glucose water.”
Verleen started Alchemy Foodtech in 2015 and invented Diabetec®, a glycemic lowering technology that when added at a small percentage to white refined carbohydrate staples, lowers the food’s glycemic index (GI) and increases its fibre content to help people prevent and manage diabetes without changing the taste, texture and colour of the food. Lowering the GI of carbohydrates slows down the rate at which the body breaks it down to glucose. This makes it suitable for diabetics who have higher blood sugar levels.
The chief food fighter (her official title) will soon see her efforts come into fruition as her company is on the verge of commercialising Diabetec® – it is currently undergoing commercial trials and will be ready in about a year.
Diabetec® is made from all-natural ingredients and is neutral tasting, so it does not affect the taste of the food when incorporated. It can be added in appropriate doses to carbohydrate staples such as noodles, white bread and even steamed buns.
The technology has even been adapted into rice-like grains she calls “FibreGrains™” so it can be mixed with jasmine white rice without altering its taste and texture.
Verleen’s journey to making better food started at 16 when she learnt about the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Food Science and Technology programme through an undergraduate who was her sister’s friend.
And with NUS being the only university to offer the programme at that time, she knew where she wanted to go and worked towards it.
“I was very determined to enter Food Science,” she said. So two years later, she applied to go to only one university: NUS.
The programme comprised science and engineering modules but Verleen preferred to work in the food science lab – because she found it fun to play with food.
However, her fascination with food science transcended analysing peppercorns or titrating chilli for a science experiment. A problem solver, she wasn’t content to just tinker away with her science kits in a lab.
“The problems and solutions that I think of are usually from a practical point of view. It’s not just about basic science research or testing a certain compound. I’m more interested in using food science to create products that can help people on an everyday basis,” she reiterated.
This idealism ignited her entrepreneurial spirit, which has led her to create two startups in the past seven years. Prior to Alchemy Foodtech, Verleen and her partner Alan Phua, founded Soyato in 2010.
Soyato, a soy-based dessert made from natural ingredients, is a healthier and low-fat alternative to ice cream. The startup was a success with Soyato being available in supermarkets, both locally and overseas. It has since been sold off.
Verleen credits NUS for providing her with the relevant foundation required in her role and speaks highly of the support that she has received throughout her journey.
For example, to create the Diabetec® fibre grains, she worked with Professor Zhou Weibiao, director of the Food Science and Technology Programme.
As a seasoned player in the startup industry, Verleen is mindful to keep operations lean and costs low. She has been able to do that by renting laboratory space at the university instead of building her own. It is a win-win situation with faculty staff and students from the food science lab engaged to participate in the experiments.
It is in these connections with the professors and their contacts that she finds the value of her NUS education, and one that she feels sets it apart from other universities.
“Other than background knowledge, what you’re really taking away (from your education) are the connections. The professors can connect you to other professors or people from their home country who they’ve worked with,” she said.
Now that’s food for thought.