Success of the program highlights the value of innovation driven by academic-industrial alliances
By Lindsay Brownell
(BOSTON) — When most people think of The Kraft Heinz Company, their minds probably jump to two iconic food products: Kraft® mac & cheese and Heinz® tomato ketchup. But Kraft Heinz is a powerhouse of nearly 200 global brands, showing up in nearly 98% of American households.
“We are passionate about feeding the world, and we take that responsibility seriously. We want consumers to be able to put something on their plate that they feel good about, and that’s tasty and nutritious for their family to eat,” said John Topinka, Research Strategy Lead at Kraft Heinz. “To that end, we have set our own Environmental, Social and Governance goals to do the right thing for consumers and for the environment. One of those goals is to reduce the total sugar in our products by more than 60 million pounds by 2025. Together with the Wyss Institute, we’re developing new approaches to help us meet this goal.”
Reducing sugar isn’t as simple as swapping sucrose for Splenda®. Beyond providing sweetness, sugar performs a host of other duties that make our foods appetizing: it caramelizes to produce the browning on baked goods; it helps thicken spreads like jam and preserves; it creates an acidic environment to reduce food spoilage; and it produces a satisfying mouthfeel. All of that creates a catch-22: reducing the sugar content in foods can make them healthier, but it also creates the challenge of trying to find alternate ways to replicate all those other qualities of sugar.
Topinka, a self-described “science geek,” and his team brought this conundrum to the innovative minds at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University during a meeting in 2018: could they create something that allowed the company to reduce the amount of sugar (specifically fructose) used in their foods without sacrificing sugar’s other beneficial properties?
Wyss Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. responded to that question with another question: was creating a substitute for sugar really the best approach, or would the company ideally want to be able to use sugar but somehow mitigate its negative effects on health?
That question launched a two-year whirlwind of research activity at the Wyss Institute funded by a sponsored research agreement with Kraft Heinz to do just that: make sugar healthier.
“We thought we’d come to the Wyss with an impossible problem, and they turned it on its head to present an even crazier idea to solve it. We assembled a diverse team of some of the smartest people I’ve ever met to see if they could do it,” said Judith Moca, Head of Technology Discovery and Development at Kraft Heinz. “The speed and professionalism of the Wyss Institute’s response has been impressive.”
Spare the sugar, spoil the glucose spike
To tackle this challenge, the Wyss team marshaled researchers from across the labs of Core Faculty members Ingber, Jim Collins, Ph.D., and Dave Weitz, Ph.D. After evaluating different potential avenues of research, the team settled on an approach based on naturally occurring enzymes that plants use to convert sugar into fiber. These enzymes could theoretically be added to foods without modifying their sugar content, and then would convert the sugar into fiber once they reached the human gut. Not only would this technique reduce the amount of sugar absorbed into the bloodstream, it would also produce gut-healthy prebiotic fiber.
The team launched into action to turn that concept into reality. They had regular calls with Kraft Heinz to update them on their progress and talk through challenges, ensuring that both parties were in lockstep with the next steps and priorities. Crucially, the enzymes needed to be able to be added to existing food products without changing their existing recipes, which was of utmost importance to Kraft Heinz.
“Beyond just finding a solution that was technically sound, it was equally important to us that our solution would actually work in the real world of food manufacturing, because something that only works in lab conditions isn’t very useful,” said Adama Sesay, Ph.D., a Senior Engineer at the Wyss Institute and a member of the team assembled to work on the project.
The team worked on encapsulation methods to ensure that the enzyme would remain intact at the temperatures found inside food processors, and consulted with a gastroenterologist to determine how the enzyme would affect the human digestive system.
After months of experimentation, they were able to engineer an enzyme product that would remain encapsulated until exposed to an increase in pH, such as that which occurs in the transition from the human stomach to the intestine, where it would activate and start converting sugar to fiber.
While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress down, members of Ingber’s lab are now working to test the enzyme product in mice so they can track its effects on dietary sugar in a living organism, with hopes to launch a startup to offer the product for sale to food companies.
“We went into this project with a fully blank slate to see what was possible. Working with the Wyss Institute was a great experience, and we would love to find more opportunities for collaboration with innovative groups that have similarly great ideas about how to make food – and the world – healthier,” said Topinka.
Ingber found the collaboration similarly rewarding. “Projects like this are a large reason why the Wyss Institute was created: to take on real-world problems that are too thorny for companies to solve on their own, and create novel solutions that can have immediate, positive impact. Kraft Heinz has been a fantastic partner, and we’re always open to talking with other companies about how we can combine our strengths to make a difference in the world.” Ingber is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Bioinspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.