Can Food Tech Help Beat a Sugar-Saturated Diet?

by | Mar 13, 2024 | Diet & Nutrition

Humans are hard-wired to like sweet flavors, and for millennia, it was an attribute that served us well.

For our hunter/gatherer ancestors, being able to taste sweetness helped them know which foods were ripe, nutritious, and safe to eat. They learned to seek out these over bitter or sour tastes that could signal spoiled or toxic substances, increasing their chances of eating enough of the right foods to stay healthy and have the energy to hunt and gather successfully.

Unfortunately, this preference doesn’t serve us so well in today’s food environment, where ultra-processed products dominate. Nearly 70% of these foods contain some amount of added sugar. It’s in soups, sauces, ready-made meals, and more.

Combine this with all of the other highly refined carbs you get in many ultra-processed products – carbs that are digested as sugar – and the rates of tooth decay and gum disease are no surprise. The average American diet, 60 to 90% of which is ultra-processed, is NOT one that promotes good oral health, let alone whole body health. (Here are 144 ways in which sugar damages the body.)

Naturally, plenty of folks have sought ways to let us have the sweet stuff without the damage. Some options, such as xylitol, erythritol, monk fruit, and stevia may do the job without the health risks raised by artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose.

But some are going a step further and looking for ways in which we might mitigate the effects of sugar after we eat it, which was the subject of a fascinating recent article over at The Guardian.

One product in development is a sachet containing “a proprietary plant fibre-based drink mix that has been engineered to expand in [your] 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.

But while early research is promising, there’s no guarantee yet that the product will actually cancel out sugar in the way its makers hope.

Meantime, others are exploring ways of using specially selected enzymes to turn sugar into fiber in the gut. Researchers at Harvard, for instance,

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.

Amazing stuff, no? Yet we share the concerns of a gut microbiome expert quoted by The Guardian:

“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.

And to that, we can only say, “Amen!”

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