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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoë Corbyn

Can we have our cake and eat it? Welcome to the world of sugar elimination

Sweet tasty glazed donuts on white background
Naughty but nice: sugar-elimination technology offers the tantalising prospect of indulging without the guilt. Photograph: Olga Yastremska/Alamy

I am in a kitchen shared by bio-based startups in San Francisco looking forward to a chocolate chip cookie. Having been diagnosed with prediabetes a few years ago, I usually stay well away from sweet treats. But I have a secret weapon: a sachet of Monch Monch, a proprietary plant fibre-based drink mix that has been engineered to expand in my stomach like a kitchen sponge and soak up sugar in food, rendering it unavailable for early absorption.

The idea is that, locked in the “sponge”, a significant amount of the sugar will simply pass through. One gram of the product can absorb six grams of sugar according to lab tests by the startup behind it, BioLumen. Sucrose (table sugar), glucose, fructose and to a lesser extent simple starches can all be sequestered. Given there’s just over four grams in the sachet, I calculate it should – if it works – nicely nullify the sugar in my treat and give my gut a fibre boost to boot. “How do you eat food without paying the health price? We think we have figured out a way,” says Paolo Costa, co-founder and CEO of the company, as I mix the powder in the sachet with water and drink it.

Welcome to the nascent technology of sugar elimination, which is concerned with counteracting sugar not before but after it has been enjoyed. Rates of diabetes and obesity are skyrocketing yet sugar substitutes, a principal avenue for reducing sugar consumption, are falling short. They can change the taste and texture of foods, some have potential safety concerns and, for better or worse, they don’t seem to stimulate the reward centre of the brain as sugar does. Sugar-elimination technology offers the tantalising prospect of keeping the sugar, while making it a healthier, less guilty pleasure. The entire food industry could benefit from this kind of technology, says John Topinka, the research strategy lead at the multinational food company Kraft Heinz.

BioLumen, which was launched in 2019, ushered Monch Monch on to the market in the US in November as a supplement (a space widely considered under-regulated). Each granule – effectively its own microsponge – is plant cellulose (insoluble fibre), the nooks and crannies of which have been impregnated with the company’s proprietary hydrogels (soluble fibre) primed to soak up sugar. Retailing at $150 (£120) a month for two sachets per day, it isn’t yet for the masses. But BioLumen’s longer-term plan is to sell it as an ingredient to food manufacturers to incorporate into their products. It has already received a “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) designation in the US and the company is currently working on how it might make it cheaper.

BioLumen’s chief medical officer and other co-founder is Robert Lustig, an emeritus professor of paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, who has done much to raise awareness of the health dangers of eating too much sugar. He shows me unpublished data from a small three-week human trial that reveals a reduced blood-sugar spike and insulin response with the product, though he also says a larger, longer trial will be needed to confirm that – along with stool studies to determine the proportion of sugar actually passing out (some of the sugar-laden sponge will inevitably be chewed up as it moves through my gut). That the sachet will cancel out the sugar in my cookie, BioLumen can’t yet definitively say. “That would be the hope and we have tried to design it that way, but we need to test,” says Lustig.

* * *

A sugar sponge isn’t the only approach. Others are pursuing a different route: turning sugar into fibre in the gut. It is a feat beyond the capability of our natural digestive enzymes, but could be achieved by incorporating small quantities of other carefully selected enzymes into food. (Enzymes are proteins that catalyse the building or breaking down of molecules.)

Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in collaboration with Kraft Heinz have developed a method that takes an enzyme naturally found in plants that converts sugar to fibre (needed by plants for stalks) and encapsulates it in a special edible proprietary coating.

The coating, itself made of fibre, prevents the enzyme from being active in the food product while it is on the shelf. The enzyme remains coated through the stomach but, in the less acidic conditions of the intestine, the coating expands – releasing the enzyme to go to work on the sugar in the food. The enzyme, a type of inulosucrase, splits the sugar into its simpler components – glucose and fructose – and links the fructose together to make inulin, a soluble fibre that isn’t digestible or absorbed by the body but which benefits the gut microbiome.

The enzyme doesn’t substantially deal with the glucose – that is mostly still available to be absorbed by the body. But, says Samuel Inverso, the Wyss’s director of business development, the beauty of the coating is that an enzyme that does convert glucose into fibre could potentially be encapsulated, too.

The Wyss is currently licensing the technology to a startup that plans to test it further and take it through the regulatory process for food ingredients, with the hope it can start being incorporated by manufacturers in the US in 2026.

Also joining the Wyss in pursuing an enzymatic route is UK startup Zya, which rebranded from Inulox this month. It has a proprietary product it calls Convero which is an enhanced version of another natural inulosucrase, different from the Wyss. Zya discovered the substance was particularly good at turning sugar to fibre in the gut (it is produced using a genome-edited microorganism). Dried, it remains inactive in food on the shelf, so no coating is necessary.

Simulated gut models suggest it converts about 30% of the sugar to fibre, says Josh Sauer, Zya’s co-founder and CEO. Again, it is the fructose the enzyme really targets for conversion to inulin. It is a transformation that, if it holds for humans, would be enough to make a meaningful impact and allow the food industry to make a new claim, says Sauer. Initial results from a preliminary trial of the natural enzyme in pigs (they weren’t harmed) look promising. More pig studies are planned with the enhanced version, along with human studies.

Like the Wyss’s enzyme, only a small amount is required, which would make it easy to incorporate into existing food products without major reformulation. It will add a cost premium – but it won’t be much, says Sauer. Zya, too, hopes to get US regulatory approval as a food ingredient in time for commercialisation in 2026. It will also pursue approval in Europe and the UK.

Sauer stresses the company isn’t trying to make any health claims; rather, it is seeking to substantiate a functional claim that its product will turn sugar, which we know we should reduce in our diets, to fibre, which we know we should increase. “You can enjoy sugar knowing it will be digested in a better way,” he says.

While these new initiatives may help reduce the impact of sugar once it enters the body, further studies are needed, says Graham MacGregor, chair of the charity Action on Sugar and a professor at Queen Mary University of London’s Wolfson Institute of Population Health. “[That includes] carefully evaluated clinical trials, examining both the safety and potential benefits of such products,” he says.

Yet will this type of technology help our sugar problem or end up being a licence to eat badly?

Tim Spector, a professor at King’s College London who studies the gut microbiome and is the co-founder of personal nutrition company Zoe, fears the latter. “These sugar-elimination products, if they work, are likely to encourage people to continue eating largely unhelpful foods,” he says. He adds that – from high fat levels to emulsifiers – there are also plenty of other ways beyond sugar that our food can be detrimental and which remain unaddressed by this technology. “Focusing on eating whole foods and reducing our intake of ultra-processed products should be everyone’s priority,” he says.

Sugar-elimination technology’s proponents counter with pragmatism. The reality is it is hard to give up sugar, and sweet treats aren’t going away any time soon. “We need all the tools we can get,” says Lustig.

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