Sugar additive behind increased virulence of two bacterial strains: Study

06 January 2018

Two bacterial strains that have plagued hospitals in the US might have been at least partly fueled by a sugar additive in our food products, according to scientists. Trehalose, a sugar that is added to a wide range of food products, could have allowed certain strains of Clostridium difficile to become far more virulent than they were before, according to a new study.

The results described in the journal Nature, point to the unintended consequences of adding otherwise harmless additives to the food supply.

C difficile can cause infection resulting in severe diarrhea and death and is among the most prevalent hospital-acquired infections in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half a million people took ill from the bug in 2011.

Around 29,000 of those patients died within 30 days of being diagnosed with C difficile, and around 15,000 of those deaths were directly linked to the infection.

According to scientists, the disease earlier did not pose such a risk to the sick and hospitalised, and scientists have long been trying to figure out the reason behind the increased virulence of some strains in recent years.

''On the basis of [our] observations, we propose that the widespread adoption and use of the disaccharide trehalose in the human diet has played a significant role in the emergence of these epidemic and hypervirulent strains,'' the authors write in a paper published yesterday in the journal Nature.

Over the years food industry has increasingly taken to trehalose thanks to its ability to withstand acids and high heat. It was expensive before 2000, but a new method has made it much easier to produce from starch. It received a ''generally recognised as safe'' status by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2000, according to the paper. It now finds increasing use in countries around the world, in foods like pasta, ice cream, and even ground beef.

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