Nucane: fighting sugar with sugar
An Australian company has devised new tech that could be a global game changer for the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic. It’s called Nucane and it offers sugar producers and food manufacturers an innovative way to turn the sugar problem into the sugar solution.
Sugar. We eat way too much of the stuff. So much, in fact, that it’s led to a global epidemic of health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But the problem with sugar is that it just tastes so darn good, triggering a huge surge of feel-good hormones in our brains, which makes us crave even more of it. Our bodies are also fuelled by sugar – most cells in our body need glucose to function, including our brains.
We’ve also evolved to seek out foods that are high in energy and help us store fat, making sweet foods the top choice for your inner caveperson. That was all well and good for our prehistoric ancestors, who spent a lot of time hunting woolly mammoths or running away from sabre-toothed tigers. But in 2021, we spend most of our time sitting, have mountains of food at our disposal, and don’t need to worry too much about giant feline predators. As a result, we’re getting fatter and more at risk of developing preventable chronic diseases.
It’s all about the process
It’s important to stress that not all sugar is bad. Natural sugars found in whole foods like fruit come as part of a healthy package that also includes fibre and antioxidants. These help to slow digestion and slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. It’s the highly refined white sugar that’s the real culprit. Being so heavily processed, it raises blood glucose levels very quickly, which then triggers a spike in insulin as your body tries to regulate that rise in blood glucose. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
While you may be trying to avoid refined sugar, it’s lurking in more places than you might think. New research from the George Institute of Global Health has revealed the amount of “hidden” sugar in packaged and processed foods, finding that Australians are buying up to 11 teaspoons per person each day in their average supermarket shop. Yikes.
But simply telling people to stop buying foods they enjoy, that are convenient or are more affordable is never going to have an impact. What’s needed is another solution – one that allows us to have access to the foods we like while also reducing our refined sugar intake.
Enter Dr David Kannar, food scientist and founder of Nutrition Innovation – an Australian company that’s developed new technology that could be a global game changer in the fight against obesity and type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Innovation has found a way to produce less refined, naturally low glycaemic sugars that they’ve called Nucane. Without bamboozling you too much with science, here’s how it works in a nutshell…
The name’s bond, sucrose bond
Sucrose (the scientific name for sugar) is made up of glucose and fructose molecules with a bond holding them together. When we ingest sucrose, a digestive enzyme splits this bond, so those two molecules can then be individually absorbed. Because Nucane is less refined than regular white sugar, the antioxidants it contains keeps this bond intact for longer, meaning you absorb less fructose and glucose. These antioxidants also slow down the transportation of glucose into the bloodstream, so there are no big spikes or crashes.
“With Nucane, not all of the glucose and fructose is broken down, which means the amount of sugar that we’re absorbing is less,” explains Susan McLeod, a nutritionist and lecturer in human nutrition at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “So there’s less being released into our bloodstream. That’s how Nucane can be called low GI, because it’s slowing down the release of sugars into our body and we’re not having that insulin effect.”
Doing things by halves
Nucane comes in both a raw sugar form and in a powdered form known as Nucane Life, which can be used by food manufacturers to help them drastically reduce the sugar content of their foods without affecting the taste or the texture of their end product.
“The problem for food companies is that sugar is a bulk filler as well as a sweetener, and if you take that bulk out of food, you’re in trouble,” Dr Kannar says. “So we started making the sugar differently – we still use sugar, but what we do is, instead of crystallising it, we dry it in a way that you get almost bubbles inside of it, like an Aero chocolate bar.
“It’s a spray-dried sugar – it’s the same volume of sugar, but it’s half the weight. So you can get a 50 percent sugar reduction in sugar content just by changing the way you make it. And that turns sugar into the solution to the sugar problem.”
Fit for purpose
What makes Nucane even better is that the technology to create these sugars can be retrofitted into existing sugar mills. Sunshine Sugar in NSW is now producing low GI sugar using Nucane technology and is supplying major food manufacturers like Bakers Delight.
“That’s all of Australia and New Zealand,” McLeod says. “That’s pretty huge. And that’s where we’re going to see the real effect of innovations like this, that amazing flow-on effect of dietary changes at a population level, which is really significant. Any Australian that consumes products like this is immediately absorbing less sugar, just by having the same product, because the industry is picking this up and using it.”
Because Nucane requires less processing, this also reduces the overall carbon footprint of its production, making it a more sustainable option as well as a healthier one.
Cutting out the middleman
Nucane has been so successful, it’s now being produced in mills in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. Even food god Heston Blumenthal has jumped on board the Nucane train. And as the low GI icing on the cake, Nutrition Innovation was named one of 50 best in the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit competition “Best Small Business: Good Food for All”.
“One of the reasons we received this award is that we’re empowering an existing industry, without having to build new industries,” Dr Kannar says. “And we’re empowering existing industries to do better and to make improvements in a way that’s not going to kill them or the consumer with costs; that actually brings the costs down.
“If you think of wholemeal wheat, that’s leaving all the husk and some of the bran on. What we’ve done is basically the same. So we’ve virtually cut the refineries out and left it so that we’ve embedded technology that allows the primary mills – which is the majority of the mills in the sugar cane world – and we’ve given the technology back to those guys, so that they can produce a finished product that can go directly to customers.”
Prepare for impact
By going straight to the source and finding a solution that works for sugar producers and food manufacturers without increasing costs or requiring new infrastructure, Nutrition Innovation has found an ingenious way to tackle our sugar problem on a global scale. McLeod calls Nucane one of the most exciting innovations that she’s yet seen.
“If you said to the whole world, ‘Okay, everyone stop now and reduce your sugar intake by 20 percent’, there is zero chance that that would happen,” she says. “But by picking the industries that put sugar into the processed foods that we’re consuming, there will be a global impact that reduces our sugar intake, purely by hitting the big companies and getting them to use this technology. They’re the ones who have to make the difference.
“That’s why this is so clever, because they’re not doing it at an individual level. They’re doing it at a really high-end level, where it’s going to have the maximum impact.”
Passing the baton
Dr Kannar is quite humble about his work, saying that he and his team just want to make the world a better place. As he lost his own brother to type 2 diabetes, the good doctor has first-hand experience of the devastating effect that the sugar problem can have.
To keep the momentum going, Nutrition Innovation has now partnered with heavyweight international food engineering companies Foss and Schneider Electric, who are installing Nucane technology in sugar mills all over the world.
“Really, all we’ve done is start the race,” Dr Kannar says. “We got proof of concept that Nucane works, and then we handed over the baton. The next step will be these guys sprinting with it and going around the world. We’ve barely scratched the surface; we’re still at that early stage, but I believe we really can materially change and benefit the world.”
For more info on Nucane, head to nucanethegoodsugar.com