An Australian firm has patented what it describes as a 'totally natural low GI sugar'.
Horizon Science, with backing from New Zealand investment fund BioPacificVentures, has developed a technique for retaining rich nutrients from parts of the sugar cane that are normally discarded during processing.
The innovation, which taps a growing trend towards the development of low GI products, could help control the diabetes epidemic sweeping the two nations.
The discovery was made by Horizon over a three-year period at the Far North Queensland sugar mill, Mossman Central Mill, with support from the Queensland State and Australian Federal Governments.
The company claims that the end result is a totally natural sugar (GI: 51), with around half the GI rating of glucose (GI: 100) and almost 25 per cent lower than that of white sugar (GI: 65).
The interest in the GI of foods and the digestibility of carbohydrates has increased considerably in recent years. A number of studies suggest that a low GI and slowly digestible carbohydrates can contribute to the prevention of obesity and diabetes.
The glycaemic index measures how quickly certain foods release carbohydrates into the body, which then raise consumers' blood glucose levels. High GI foods cause blood sugar levels to rise more rapidly.
The new ingredient can be used in cooking and baking like ordinary sugar, whereas artificial sweeteners often require changes to recipes, according to Horizon Science.
"To be released in 2008, the low GI sugar retains higher amounts of natural sugar-cane polyphenols, which in addition to reducing GI have also shown to be responsible for reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass," said David Kannar, chief scientific officer at Horizon Science.
"These effects are important in type 2 diabetes, one of the fastest growing global health threats."
But the current GI craze has its critics. Dr Glenn Gaesser, co-chair of the US Grain Food Foundation's clinical advisory board for example, said last summer that the growth in the popularity of the term was being pushed by the food industry.
"With the GI craze we have a case of the tail wagging the dog- everyone is following along for fear of losing market share.
"The utility of the glycaemic index with regard to health and weight control is overstated and not backed by a fair amount of published research," he said.
Nonetheless, Ross Dobinson, executive chairman of Horizon Science said that the product, which he claimed was the world's first patented, totally natural low GI sugar, is a great advancement in the fight against diabetes and obesity.
"It also provides significant new opportunities for Australia's sugar industry to add value across its total supply chain," he said.
"We are also excited about the opportunities for the sugar polyphenols in food including chocolate, an important research focus of Horizon."
A number of other ingredients firms are developing low-GI products. Galam for example was at the recent HIE show to showcase its Fruitose low-GI sugar, and Jungbunzlauer's erythritol bulk sweetener, with a GI of zero and high digestive tolerance, recently received EC approval.
New Zealand trade and enterprise sector director of biotechnology, Chris Boalch, said that Horizon Science's innovation is reflective not only of the growing trend in low GI foods, but also of the growing collaboration between Australia and New Zealand, which together represent the fifth largest biotech hub in the world.
"Australia and New Zealand are both world leaders in food production and agribusiness, and by combining our knowledge, capital and resources we have a significant opportunity to advance global health and medicine and in turn help grow the Australian and New Zealand economies," he said.