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Sugar additive in cakes has fueled rise of superbug

A sugar additive found in cream cakes, fruit juices and jams has fuelled the rise of a killer superbug, according to new research.

The study shows that the sugar – known as trehalose – is metabolized by the potentially deadly bacterium Clostridium difficile.

It suggests the common ingredient – which has been much-hyped in recent years as a ‘healthy’ alternative to sugar – is helping trigger epidemics across the world.

Trehalose, found in plants and fungi, is also used in dried and frozen foods, nutrition bars, fruit fillings, instant noodles and rice and white chocolate.

Trehalose has become a popular sugar alternative for bakers as studies found it to be less calorific with less danger to the heart and liver. But a new study says it could have another risk

It occurs naturally in small amounts in mushrooms, honey and seafood.

In recent years the UK, Europe and the US have seen a sharp increase in hyper-virulent strains that cause severe disease.

Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, loss of appetite, nausea and abdominal pain.

But the factors contributing to their emergence have been unclear – until now.

The study found two genetically distinct C. diff strains that have caused epidemics – known as RT027 and RT078 -have independently acquired unique mechanisms to break down low concentrations of trehalose.

Importantly it also showed this ability to metabolise the sugar was linked with disease severity in mice with a humanised form of C diff.

Bacterial strains can be analysed through differences in bits of DNA called ribosomal RNA – and assigned to particular ‘ribotypes’.

Professor Robert Britton and colleagues used whole-genome sequencing and comparative analysis to discover the link.

It identifies the C diff strains and the widespread adoption and use of trehalose as a sugar additive in the human diet, and suggest that a harmless food additive may inadvertently select for pathogens.

Prof Britton, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said: ‘Clostridium difficile disease has recently increased to become a dominant pathogen in North America and Europe, although little is known about what has driven this emergence.

‘Here we show that two epidemic ribotypes (RT027 and RT078) have acquired unique mechanisms to metabolise low concentrations of the disaccharide trehalose.’


Trehalose is a naturally-occurring sugar that is found in plants and insects.

It consists of two glucose molecules bound together.

The natural sugar has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. 

A study last year by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine found it prevents fructose from entering the liver.

The researchers found trehalose also triggers a housekeeping process in liver cells that gets rid of excess fat buildup. 

It was also tipped as a less calorific alternative to sugar.

The same team published another study in June showing trehalose activates a protein called TFEB that causes immune cells, known as macrophages, to remove dangerous blockage in the heart.

The study, published in the journal Nature, found RT027 strains contain a single mutation in the trehalose that increases its sensitivity to trehalose by more than 500-fold.

Prof Britton said: ‘Furthermore, dietary trehalose increases the virulence of a RT027 strain in a mouse model of infection.’

Meanwhile RT078 strains acquired a cluster of four genes involved in trehalose metabolism.

Prof Britton said: ‘We propose that the implementation of trehalose as a food additive into the human diet, shortly before the emergence of these two epidemic lineages, helped select for their emergence and contributed to hypervirulence.’

Jimmy Ballard, a microbiologist at Oklahoma University who reviewed the study for the journal, said it provides a possible explanation for C diff outbreaks since 2001.

He said: ‘Of particular concern has been the correlation between RT027 and a dramatic increase in deaths related to C. difficile.

‘The mystery of why this ribotype and a second one, RT078, became so prevalent apparently out of thin air has remained largely unsolved.’

Ballard said prof Britton’s team ‘raise the possibility that the seemingly harmless addition of a sugar called trehalose to the food supply contributed to this disease epidemic.’

Mark Wilcox, Professor of Medical Microbiology at Leeds University, said it was ‘an interesting and well conducted study.’

C diff came to prominence in the first decade of this millennium as a cause of life-threatening gut inflammation and diarrhea, he said.

The ‘live’ part of the study was in mice and it is important to know whether the effects seen are replicated in humans.

Prof Wilcox said: ‘ The association that trehalose can be used by virulent types of C. difficile may be one part of the jigsaw explaining why these became more common.

‘However, the association with trehalose does not explain why the more virulent types of C. difficile increased in countries at different times and then were successfully controlled in some of these, as happened for example in the UK over the last 10 years.

‘Earlier research has shown that other factors, including the use of particular antibiotics (e.g. fluoroquinolones) that were inactive against virulent types of C. difficile played a key part in their rise to prominence and then their fall.’

Brendan Wren, Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: ‘This study provides a good example of how changes in human activity (e.g. changes in food additives) can have unintended consequences relating to the emergence and ultimately the global spread of an infectious agent.’

As a food additive trehalose is artificially produced from corn starch using several bacterial enzymes.