Partnering with the Mars Advanced Research Institute, scientists at the University of California, Davis, uncover a new production method for low-calorie sugar substitutes, such as allulose, opening up new formulation opportunities.
The University of California (UC) Davis and Mars Advanced Research Institute (MARI) teamed up to pinpoint a path forward to identify and advance an affordable substitute for sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup with zero and low-calorie sugar substitutes. The UC Davis’ Innovation Institute for Food and Health works with the food industry and academic partners to locate and develop solutions for significant challenges at the intersection of food and health.
From here, the institute built a collaborative research programme with the UC Davis faculty, who identified rare sugars as an untapped opportunity. “The team of researchers that worked on this project identified a novel, breakthrough method that is efficient, economically feasible and could be scaled up for commercial production,” Marissa Pickard, Lead Community Coordinator of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at UC Davis, told IFIS Publishing.
Sugar consumption presents an industry challenge
“The overconsumption of sugar and resulting associated health problems is an enormous challenge that the allulose project addresses,” says Pickard. While initially applied to allulose, this process can also be applied to other sugar substitutes, the researchers found.
As consumer needs, market drivers and technology have evolved and advanced, Mars states it has proactively sought an alternative ingredient to complement sugar in its broad confectionery portfolio.
Allulose is a rare sugar, naturally occurring in fruits such as figs and raisins, as an alternative to sucrose. Researchers are studying many rare sugars for various reasons, but allulose stands out as a safe, low-calorie alternative found in nature that has a desirable flavour profile along with favourable browning, hygroscopic and solubility properties.
“We realised that allulose was an ingredient that has been known for decades, but current production methods rely on a relatively costly enzymatic process,” a spokesperson for Mars told IFIS Publishing. The cost of allulose is about three-five times more than sucrose.
As such, the MARI and Mars Snacking sought to investigate methods for producing bulk allulose from raw materials cost-competitive and would, therefore, allow for the food industry’s broader usage.
Popular with consumers, Pickard relays that, unlike other alternatives to sucrose, consumers don’t find allulose has a chemical aftertaste. “However, allulose has not had widespread adoption given the cost-prohibitive production process, resulting in an expensive product,” Pickard adds.
Realising untapped potential
Today, there is increasing awareness on the part of both companies and consumers on food and health impacts. With this growing knowledge comes greater calls for healthier products. While demand for the many sugar substitutes on the market is growing, Pickard reveals less expensive sugar substitutes sometimes have a chemical aftertaste, which may be off-putting for consumers looking for a sugar-mimicking taste.
“Allulose is known for being a natural, healthy sugar alternative without an aftertaste, but until this breakthrough, it has been prohibitively expensive,” says Pickard. “The ability to produce allulose, and other rare sugars, in bulk has the potential to monumentally shift strategies around food production and processing,” Pickard shares.
In turn, the research team hopes this will help address rising global obesity rates by providing low-calorie sugar alternatives for ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and, therefore, creating healthier products that support people’s health and wellbeing.
Technology has also played a crucial role in identifying the new allulose route. “Furthermore, recent advances in genomic, metabolic, and protein engineering have made it possible to enhance the natural pathway for allulose production,” Pickard says.
Potential for food manufacturers
UC Davis, MARI and Mars Snacking researchers have discovered an alternative approach using microbial fermentation to produce the sweetener from relatively inexpensive raw materials. The experiments’ findings show that an established industrial microbe is naturally capable of producing allulose, meaning it has all the components necessary for allulose production.
Through the development of a bacteria with built-in enzymes, the researchers found a direct fermentation pathway to produce allulose, which has the potential to remove several costly steps required in the traditional manufacturing process.
Food manufacturers will be able to choose allulose as an alternative ingredient to sugar, making healthier choices available in the market. “This discovery of an efficient and cost-effective method of producing allulose in bulk opens the door for food companies to continue delivering the products that people love without compromising their health,” says Pickard.
The technique the researchers identified also enables manufacturers to apply it to other substitute sugars, enabling options for food companies and more affordable healthy products for consumers.
To achieve this, Pickard says, the industry needs more industry and academic partnerships, like the partnership between MARI and the Innovation Institute for Food and Health to dive into the global food systems’ grand challenges and build additional innovative solutions.
“Food companies are working to answer consumers' call to provide more nutritious products without compromising taste or cost, and academic experts are ready to work with industry leaders to identify and develop these solutions,” says Pickard.
Detailing how the findings support current efforts to curb sugar consumption, Pickard says that one critical factor in combatting issues related to metabolic diseases is developing new tools and cost-effective ingredients that enable the food industry to play a role in providing nutritionally balanced products.
“This new production method has the potential to enable a new way to produce lower-calorie sugar alternatives, making it relevant to the wider food industry and consumers alike,” says Mars’ spokesperson. Mars currently uses allulose in two of its products: Its Starburst plant-based gummy, sold in Walgreens, and its Kind Zero Added Sugar Bars, Dark Chocolate Nuts and Sea Salt, sold in Amazon.
“Consumers are looking for various dietary options for many reasons, such as reducing calories or sugar,” says Mars’ spokesperson. “Since it is our goal to meet consumer needs, we will always be looking into ways to reformulate or develop new products.”
Following the discovery, in response to its next steps for formulation of existing products or new launches, Mars’ spokesperson says: “While this discovery is exciting, much more needs to be done to translate it into a commercially viable production method.”
More research is expected, therefore, to take shape before significant changes happen. “We are currently evaluating the best way to do this that not only opens new opportunities for Mars but also for the broader food industry,” the spokesperson adds.
Interview with Marissa Pickard, Lead Community Coordinator, Innovation Institute for Food and Health at the University of California, Davis
Interview with a spokesperson from Mars