The findings from a study by Japanese researchers led by Nobuyuki Nukina at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Saitama suggest that this simple sugar - with half the sweetness of sucrose - could relieve the symptoms of Huntington's disease in mice.
The news is a further indicator to the food industry of the potential health benefits contained within this sweetener. 'We do not know the full benefits of trehalose yet,' a spokesman for Cargill told FoodNavigator.com. Adding that research and development on the multi-functional sweetener is a key priority for the company.
'British Sugar stopped the research because it did not have the resources to invest in R&D on trehalose, we do,' he commented.
A spokesman for British Sugar told FoodNavigator.com that the company sold the rights because it was not core business.
In July last year the US agri-giant bought the sales rights from British Sugar to be the sole distributor in Europe for trehalose - to date on the European market for about 3 years - manufactured by the Japanese company Hayashibara.
The move expanded the company's already dominant position in the marketplace. "Cargill also has exclusive rights to sell its Ascend brand of trehalose into the food market in North, South and Central America that is produced using the Hayashibara technology," Jim Kappas, Cargill H&FT director of marketing, said at the time .
On Tuesday the company declined to reveal current sales of the product, but said that until the full benefits of the ingredient are well researched, the potential market size was difficult to estimate.
But the Japanese study published in yesterday's issue of Nature Medicine (doi:10.1038/nm985 (2004)) is an indication that the potential health benefits of this sweetener ingredient are likely to start to come to light.
Nobuyuki Nukina and colleagues tested a variety of compounds on a test-tube model of the disease. The disease, for which there is currently no cure, causes profound cognitive and movement problems and affects 1 in 10,000 people.
They discovered that sugar compounds seemed to have a positive effect. They then tested trehalose on genetically modified mice with Huntington's disease-like symptoms. Left untreated, the mice develop aggregates of a badly folded brain protein, called Huntingtin. The animals become uncoordinated, lose weight and die young - at about 3 months old, report the scientists.
But when the animals were allowed to drink a weak solution of trehalose for most of their lives, symptoms improved. Sugar-treated rodents had 40 per cent fewer protein aggregates, lived 10 per cent longer and lost 25 per cent less weight. They were also more co-ordinated - they walked more normally and were less likely to fall off a rotating rod, added the researchers.
The sugar is already known to be safe, so the next step is to test it on human patients, says Nukina. But he cautions that clinical trials are needed to assess it before anyone attempts self-treatment.
Found naturally - in honey and mushrooms, for example - the commercial product is made from cornstarch by an enzymatic process.
According to Cargill, this non-reducing sugar, that is 45 per cent as sweet as sucrose, has similar functional properties to sucrose and can be used in combination with sucrose and other bulk sweeteners to optimise sweetness.
As with other sugars, the sweetener can be used without restriction in a range of food products including beverages, chocolate and sugar confectionery, bakery products, frozen foods, breakfast cereals and dairy products. Because it is fully caloric and metabolised to glucose, trehalose is ripe for targetting at product formulations that provide sustained energy - notably, sports nutrition.
Trehalose has GRAS (Generally Recognised As Safe) status in the US under the US Food and Drug Administration and in 2001 the EU approved it for use as a novel food.