If only a chocolate chip cookie were as nutritious as a serving of broccoli. An exciting collaboration between Kraft Heinz and scientists at the Wyss Institute may bring packaged food closer to that goal than ever before.
Host: Stephanie DeMarco, PhD, Associate Editor, Team Lead
Judith Moca at Kraft Heinz
John Topinka at Kraft Heinz
Sam Inverso at the Wyss Institute
Adama Marie Sesay at the Wyss Institute
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Stephanie DeMarco: Hello DDN Dialogues listeners! Welcome back to our first episode of 2024. I’m your host, Stephanie DeMarco. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season and that your new year is starting out well.
In today’s episode, we’re talking about something that is often on many of our minds in the new year: eating healthy.
One of my favorite things to do during the holidays is to bake as many sweet treats as I can. I’ll make trays of gingerbread cookies, jam-filled flakey pastries, and if I’m feeling adventurous, gooey cinnamon rolls with a generous heap of cream cheese frosting. Now, while all the sugar and butter that goes into these bakes makes them taste delicious, they’re not exactly the healthiest ingredients.
Eating foods with a lot of added sugar can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular complications. It also increases the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Some well-known foods with added sugars are soda, breakfast cereals, and desserts like ice cream. But a lot of the food sitting on grocery store shelves that seems healthy, can also hide a lot of extra sugar. Some common culprits are granola bars, yogurt, and even savory foods like jarred pasta sauce and bottled salad dressing.
But, what if there was a way to make the sugar in these foods actually good for you?
It may seem too good to be true, but stick with me. In today’s episode, we’re rolling down grocery store aisles, capturing enzymes, and diving into a new discovery that will not only reduce the amount of sugar in foods, but actually turn it into gut-healthy fiber. And, it all starts with a company famous for their mac and cheese and ketchup.
For the scientists at the multinational food company Kraft Heinz, creating more nutritious foods is a major goal. In 2022, they pledged to reduce the sugar in their products by 60 million pounds by the year 2025. Since setting that goal, they’ve already managed to get rid of 47 million pounds of sugar across their different products.
The biggest contributor to the reduction was replacing some of the sugar in their popular Capri Sun drinks with monk fruit. But Judith Moca, who leads the Next Generation Ingredients, Analytical Sciences, and Nutrition group at Kraft Heinz, told me that the company wants to improve even more.
Judith Moca: Given the fact that we are one of the world's largest food and beverage companies, we really feel a continuous pressure and responsibility to make sure we are offering very innovative solutions to our consumers. So, we made significant investments to improve the nutritional value of our product portfolio, and we are constantly looking at transformational technologies to achieve better solutions for our customers and consumers.
John Topinka: We understand each person has their own journey of nutrition, and we want to make sure that we can address each of those needs. People now are doing things like tracking glucose, they're looking at metabolism, insulin response, and things like that. Diabetes is on the rise in the United States. There's lots of these more systemic problems in our society that would lead some people to want to reduce sugar.
DeMarco: That’s John Topinka, a Research and Development strategy lead at Kraft Heinz. For Moca, Topinka, and their colleagues, there was one place that they knew would be an excellent partner in helping them tackle their goal: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University.
Moca: They have a track record in developing a lot of technologies that transform the world, not necessarily only in the food industry space, but across other types of disciplines. We also had a great relationship with the researchers and the scientists there, and we found that chemistry between us, posing challenges that will have solutions in super out-of-the-box ways of thinking.
DeMarco: To learn more about how this idea came about, I spoke with Sam Inverso, who is the director of business development at the Wyss Institute and the alliance manager for this Kraft Heinz partnership.
Inverso: They came to the Wyss Institute and talked to our founding director Don Ingber about developing a new artificial sweetener. If you're not aware, sugar does a lot of different things than just being sweet: Sugar is browning; it is texture; it is thickening and bulking. So if you just take your sweetener off the shelf and try to replace it in your baked good that your grandma made 100 years ago, it's not going to work.
If you think about Kraft, they've been making the ketchup the same way for 100 years. They don't really want to change their workflows. And they also don't want to reformulate, which is what makes sweeteners difficult is how do you maintain the sweetness but not have to reformulate the product. So in the end, we were aiming for an ingredient that could be dry, mixed with sugar, and then put directly into the workflow.
So what Don said is, we're biologically inspired engineering. Maybe we don't need an artificial sweetener. Maybe it's not exactly sugar that's the problem. It's that we have access to a lot of sugar. We're evolved to want sugar because overall, it's good to have a caloric increase. But how can we make sugar healthier?
DeMarco: To find out, I spoke with Adama Marie Sesay, who co-leads this project and is a senior staff engineer with expertise in biomaterials and microsystems at the Wyss Institute.
Adama Marie Sesay: Don came up with the idea: Well, why don't we just sequester it before it's absorbed in the body? It boiled down to this: What is the most bio-inspired way that living organisms can actually deal with excess sugar? We need to have something that's not only biocompatible, but that is natural, that would be something that we would have as an ingredient to eat, and so it lent itself naturally to thinking about, we know that plants make fiber out of sugar, that is, in a way sequestered because it builds up, and so the smallest unit is an enzyme. And so, having an enzyme that can do that, we felt that that was a good way forward.
Inverso: Fiber itself is non digestible, and it's a prebiotic, so it helps the healthy gut bacteria. And there's a lot of evidence in the scientific literature that fiber also reduces glycemic responses. So, there are benefits to not just reducing the caloric restrictions, but dietary health benefits to converting sugar to fiber in the gut. And so, Kraft said, ‘Alright, well if you want to do something that crazy, let's go ahead!’
DeMarco: Since plants naturally encode enzymes that break down sugar into fiber, the researchers started searching for the best plant enzymes for the job.
Inverso: We did a literature review of all the possible enzymes out there that you can convert sucrose, glucose, and fructose into fiber. And there are about four, and they work in kind of a couple of different ways where they either break the sucrose into glucose and fructose and then start making chains, or they can start with glucose and make changes from there. Kraft was really interested in fructose, so we concentrated on a fructosyltransferase, which splits sucrose, and I believe it uses glucose as a start of a chain for fructose. The end product is inulin, which is a sweet fiber.
DeMarco: With an enzyme that converts sugar into fiber, they’d solved the problem, right? Not quite.
Inverso: If you take that enzyme and you throw it into your sauce while it sits on the shelf for nine months, it's gonna start converting the sugar to fiber. So, it was like a formulation for drugs and pills. Instead of the shelf life in a dry powder for nine months, it's a shelf life in jam for nine months.
DeMarco: The researchers needed to find a way to stabilize the enzyme so that it would stay inactive when mixed into food sitting on the shelf, but as soon as someone ate the food, it could become active and start converting sugar into fiber.
Sesay: Now we have to protect it. Now we have to make sure that it is delivered where we want to deliver it. The actual innovation was to use a naturally occurring type of enzyme that is plant-based, that can then be converted into something that we can protect.
DeMarco: After a lot of experimentation, they found just the vessel to protect their enzyme.
Sesay: We studied a series of different types of encapsulators, series of different kinds of gels, and we locked it down to one or two of them. One of them is pectin, and pectin is great because it has the ability to change and to kind of fall apart at different pH concentrations. And, that allowed us to have this smart way of encapsulation.
DeMarco: Pectin is very stable at low pH concentrations. So, mixing the encapsulated enzyme in jam, which has a pH range of 2.7 to 3.6, will keep the enzyme inside the pectin. But, all of that changes when someone takes a bite of that jam spread on a sandwich. As the jam moves through the digestive tract, the pH of the gut steadily rises. The higher pH will trigger the pectin encapsulation chamber to swell and then release the enzyme in the human gut. There, it’s finally free to munch on sugar.
The researchers also realized that if they attached a little bit of cellulose fiber to the enzyme before it started converting the sugar in the food to fiber, they could get it to stick around in the gut longer.
Sesay: The fiber is kind of sticky, so it has a little bit more residence time than just the enzyme in itself. The enzyme could flush through the body quite quickly, but because it's already a fiber, it can stay around a little bit longer. So, that was another bit of engineering that was used to keep it there to produce more fiber.
DeMarco: To encapsulate the modified plant enzyme, the team collaborated with researchers in David Weitz’s laboratory, who are experts in microfluidics and biophysics at the Wyss Institute.
Sesay: He has a microfluidic solution, which we can do double emulsions, and when I say double emulsions, it means that we can have a liquid core and a semisolid surrounding. We can have very distinct, uniform dispersions of our enzyme encapsulated in a gel matrix. So, we use that technology to produce these small enzyme encapsulate solutions. So, at the end of the day, what we have is a suspended solution, that has these microparticles, which are between 50 and 100 micrometers. We are working on getting that in a nano range or the sub-nano range.
DeMarco: With the sugar-to-fiber enzyme concoction, the researchers now had to see just how well it worked. So, the Wyss team tested the encapsulated enzyme’s stability in an acidic solution like those on grocery store shelves.
Inverso: Honestly, I’ll say I was surprised at the stability of the encapsulation. You're talking about taking something in an acidic environment, and let it sit there for multiple days and have it not actually fall apart. So the team did an amazing job finding the correct combination of encapsulate pectin plus a nanocellulose backbone, which helps tether the enzyme into it. So they showed over eight days that the particle stays compact, and then when you change the pH to about six, it then expands, and the enzyme can go out. Eight days seems like forever in the lab even though it's not forever as far as food manufacturers are concerned.
DeMarco: Moving forward, the researchers wanted to see how the sugar-eating enzyme might affect people who eat food with it. The team at Kraft Heinz was worried that the extra fiber produced from converting sugar into fiber might cause gastrointestinal blockages or discomfort, so the researchers consulted some gastroenterologists for their thoughts.
Inverso: They said that it's unlikely. Given the amount of sugar that people consume and the amount that would be converted to fiber, it's actually quite small overall. And second, Americans have a poor fiber diet to begin with, so this will help bridge that fiber gap. And finally, they said the people who have trouble with fiber in their gut causing blockages are typically not drinking enough water, so we were pretty confident given those discussions, that it would be fine. But again, we're all scientists, so we'd have to see how it works.
DeMarco: The researchers are performing mouse experiments with this encapsulated enzyme right now. They are testing the safety and toxicology of the enzyme as well as measuring animals’ glucose responses.
Inverso: I've seen the lab results, and it looks pretty awesome. So the next steps are always translation, right? It still requires some reformulation, most likely.
DeMarco: As the researchers continue working on this project, the teams at the Wyss Institute and Kraft Heinz are eager to move this technology forward.
Topinka: We both agreed together that the best way to bring these things to market was for this technology to be available to a broader market segment than just to Kraft Heinz necessarily.
Moca: Given how transformational this is, we felt like it’s great to share this with the world, with our colleagues from the other CPG companies. Because it’s only that way, when we can create, if I may say, a global transformation, we can create a bigger impact.
Inverso: So, I'm working hand in hand with the Office of Tech Development. We're pretty deep diligence with the licensor. Unfortunately, I can't say the name until the license is done. Hopefully, we'll have a press release by the beginning of next year.
DeMarco: While it will take some time to implement, reducing sugar while simultaneously adding fiber to people’s diets will have all-around positive effects on health.
Inverso: It's exciting because it's going to make food healthier overall. So personally, my father has type two diabetes, and he accidentally eats sugary things — we'll just say that. And so something like this would help those accidents not produce glycemic responses.
Through this work with Kraft, we're now talking to them again about potentially other ways we can make nutritious food, help people with their sugar cravings, and What are the biomarkers involved that predict sugar cravings, and how can we curb that? So there's a, there's a whole lot that the success of this has kind of opened up in the possibility of taking science — and even pharma science that the food industry doesn't use — and applying it to solving these problems.
DeMarco: That’s it for this episode of DDN Dialogues. I’d like to thank Judith Moca and John Topinka from Kraft Heinz, as well as Sam Inverso and Adama Marie Sesay from the Wyss Institute for talking with me for this story. And thanks to all of you for listening! Until next time, I’m your host Stephanie DeMarco.
This episode of DDN Dialogues was reported, written, and produced by me with additional audio editing by Jessica Smart. To never miss an episode, subscribe to DDN Dialogues wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like this show, please rate us five stars, and leave a review on your favorite podcasting platform. If you’d like to get in touch, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, who knows, maybe one day, grabbing a box of cookies from the grocery store shelves may actually be a healthy choice.