Making sweeteners cheaper and more sustainable

Monday, 12 December, 2016

Researchers have designed a process to obtain sweeteners like mannitol or ribitol from widely available, renewable, cheap products like glucose or arabinose.

Polyalcohols are widely used in the food industry, and are particularly common in sweets, gums and toothpaste. They produce a sensation of freshness in the mouth and don’t contribute to tooth decay.

Some polyalcohols may be found in nature; however, isolation is uncommon and industrial synthesis is often preferred. Normally, this involves the use of biochemical processes where enzymes prepare polyalcohols from sugars. But these systems require meticulously controlled temperatures, concentrations and pH, which hinders big-scale production.

Now, scientists at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia in Spain have developed a solution based on heterogeneous catalysis. The idea combines a first step where sugar atoms are reorganised thanks to a molybdenum-based catalyst and a second hydrogenation step catalysed by ruthenium. This method allows researchers to obtain valuable polyalcohols like mannitol or ribitol from cheap and widely available products like glucose or arabinose.

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