Too much sugar, that sweet substance, is known to be particularly harmful for your health, with various effects earning it a “White Death” title. But who could know that this common substance - when modified for use in processed foods - could turn your average harmful intestinal bacteria in a homicidal monster infection?
Strictly speaking, there are various substances that together form the "sugars" class: glucose that we run on is one; sucrose — table sugar — is another. And then there is trehalose, a complex sugar, which, in terms of chemistry, is two glucose molecules attached by a sturdy glucoside bond.
Trehalose is useful, found in cosmetics, medicine and, of course, many prepared foods. The compound is resistant to breaking up at high temperatures and acidic conditions, and also forms a cool gel phase that prevents body cells from drying up. In prepared foods, those properties allow for trehalose to act as mild sweetener, moisture-preserver, thickener, and stabilizer. No wonder multinational food corporations love to have the substance. The problem was — making it in large quantities was expensive — about $700 per kilogram.
Things changed in 2000, when Japanese company Hayashibara announced it had developed a cheap mass production method for trehalose, and secured the permission of the US Food and Drug Administration and its European counterpart.
And that's when the bacteria attacked.
Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short, is an ordinarily harmless infection. Under normal circumstances it can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, and, sometimes worse complications that would get you a hospital stay — but not in a mortuary.
In 2000, though, C. diff began to kill people, with some 29,000 succumbing to the bacteria by 2011, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
A recent study led by Robert Britton at Baylor College of Medicine, revealed the line between the suddenly-dangerous bacteria and the mass-produced sweetening compound.
According to the study, two strains of the bacteria, RT027 and RT078, have a mutation that allows them to survive on just tiny concentrations of trehalose. While their less deadly counterparts would die out in intestinal conditions, these two lived on, and became deadly.
In a lab experiment, RT027 killed nearly 80 percent of infected mice, while its genetically-downgraded counterpart that could not metabolize the sugar killed only 30 percent. The picture seemed to be similar with RT078, which easily pushed its counterparts in conditions where trehalose was present.
Another experiment proved that trehalose-laced water had made RT027 deadly; without trehalose, it was three times less harmful, Ars Technica reported.
Researchers determined that RT027 does not multiply more easily when trehalose is present — instead, it simply makes it more toxic, becoming more deadly.
"On the basis of these 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,"Britton and colleagues concluded.
Critics notice, however, that Britton's study is incomplete. According to Jimmy Ballard, a microbiologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, further research is needed to confidently point out that the use of the manufactured sweetening compound in processed foodstuffs is the true reason of heightened death rates.
"It is impossible to know all the details of events surrounding the recent C. difficile epidemics,"Ballard wrote.
"But the circumstantial and experimental evidence points to trehalose as an unexpected culprit."