When Kraft Heinz asked the Wyss Institute at Harvard University to create something that allowed the company to reduce the amount of sugar (specifically fructose) used in their foods without sacrificing sugar’s other beneficial properties, Don Ingber, MD, PhD, Wyss founding director, responded with another question: was creating a substitute for sugar really the best approach, or would the company ideally want to be able to use sugar but somehow mitigate its negative effects on health?
For the past two years, the Wyss Institute has been working to do just that: make sugar healthier.
Reducing sugar isn’t as simple as swapping in a sugar substitute. Beyond providing sweetness, sugar performs a host of other duties that make our foods appetizing: it caramelizes to produce the browning on baked goods; it helps thicken spreads like jam and preserves; it creates an acidic environment to reduce food spoilage; and it produces a satisfying mouthfeel. All of that creates a catch-22: reducing the sugar content in foods can make them healthier, but it also creates the challenge of trying to find alternate ways to replicate all those other qualities of sugar.
The Wyss team, made up of members of the Ingber lab, and the labs of Jim Collins, PhD, David Walt, PhD, and Dave Weitz, PhD, used an approach based on naturally occurring enzymes that plants use to convert sugar into fiber. These enzymes could theoretically be added to foods without modifying their sugar content, and then would convert the sugar into fiber once they reached the human gut. Not only would this technique reduce the amount of sugar absorbed into the bloodstream, it would also produce gut-healthy prebiotic fiber.
The enzymes needed to be able to be added to existing food products without changing their existing recipes, which was important to Kraft Heinz.
“Beyond just finding a solution that was technically sound, it was equally important to us that our solution would actually work in the real world of food manufacturing because something that only works in lab conditions isn’t very useful,” said Adama Sesay, PhD, a senior engineer at the Wyss Institute and a member of the team assembled to work on the project.
The team worked on encapsulation methods to ensure that the enzyme would remain intact at the temperatures found inside food processors, and consulted with a gastroenterologist to determine how the enzyme would affect the human digestive system.
After months of experimentation, they were able to engineer an enzyme product that would remain encapsulated until exposed to an increase in pH, such as that which occurs in the transition from the human stomach to the intestine, where it would activate and start converting sugar to fiber. There is not yet a publication associated with this research.
Members of Ingber’s lab are now working to test the enzyme product in mice so they can track its effects on dietary sugar in a living organism, with hopes to launch a startup to offer the product for sale to food companies.