Hidden Sugar Additive May Have Fueled Outbreak Of Deadly 'Superbug'

What do you and the deadliest superbugs in America's hospitals have in common? You both really like to eat trehalose, a sugar additive used in many cakes, frostings, and processed sweets. Multiple strains of the bacterium Clostridium difficile have been chowing down on the ingredient, potentially fueling outbreaks and illness for thousands of Americans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, C. difficile sickens nearly a half a million people each year, killing 15,000. Patients who have taken broad-spectrum antibiotics are especially vulnerable to this "superbug," making it one of the deadliest challenges hospitals face when treating patients.

These bacteria haven't always been so caustic for doctors and treatment teams — though the strains have been present for years, they have only recently risen to the forefront of hospital woes. Scientists have been toiling over petri dishes to discover why the bacteria are able to thrive now more than ever; it seems this sugar additive might be the answer.

A team of researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas examined two particularly prosperous strains of C. difficile, evaluating their feeding patterns and preferences. They found that C. difficile have genes that allow the bacteria to turn trehalose, which has a lower glycemic index than normal sugar, into glucose, which provides much more energy.

In most strains of the bacteria, there's a protein that blocks this process unless there's a ton of trehalose present. However, the two strains responsible for the outbreaks have mutations that lower this threshold, so even a little trehalose could be a problem for those trying to prevent illness from spreading.

It makes sense that they're flourishing. Small amounts of trehalose in the human body and elsewhere are giving these superbugs a ton of extra energy to grow and replicate — rapidly.

Both trehalose and the deadly superbugs started becoming more prevalent at roughly the same time. Companies have increasingly employed the additive since 2000, when an innovative production technique made it much cheaper and regulators in the U.S. approved it for use in food. Over the same time period, C. difficile has increasingly made people sick.

The research team says their results don't prove that trehalose is solely responsible for the recent proliferation of the deadly strains, but they see strong evidence for a connection. "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," the report states.

Other researchers are convinced as well. "The circumstantial and experimental evidence points to trehalose as an unexpected culprit," Dr. Jimmy D. Ballard of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center wrote in a commentary in the journal Nature.

For now, eating trehalose might be hard to avoid, as it's used to supplement the usual sugar suspects in a variety of store-bought products. There's still no evidence to suggest that trehalose is directly bad for humans, but don't go adding it in as a sugar replacement if you can help it — here are nine healthier options for supplementing your sweet tooth.