Trehalose: A Wonder Sugar or a Double-edged Sword

From where do we get the energy to run, walk and doing other stuff?

The answer is obvious! From the food we eat, right.

Ok, but what if I tell you to dig little deeper. Let’s recall some mechanism of our body to generate energy.

You eat some food. Our body then digests that food with the help of acid and enzymes. When the body digests the food, carbohydrates in the food (starch and sugar) breaks down into another type of sugar called glucose. When small intestine in the body absorbs glucose, it leads to the formation of a special molecule called Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This ATP is used as a currency of energy in the body. Individual cells in the body transform this ATP to ADP (Adenosine triphosphate) and release energy required for bodily functions.

Have you observed whenever you eat some table sugar you get a burst of energy? Why is that?

Table sugar contains Sucrose a disaccharide or a molecule consisting of one glucose and one fructose molecule. In the body Sucrose (table sugar) breaks down into glucose (and fructose) and because of this molecule, you feel that burst of energy.

Have you seen some insects when they fly, how quickly their wings move (that needs a huge amount of energy)? So, is glucose the reason for their energy too?

Yes, but that glucose they don’t get from sucrose but from another disaccharide called trehalose. Unlike sucrose, trehalose is made up of two glucose molecule. This trehalose in insects is responsible for giving them rapid energy. This is due to the fact that one trehalose molecule produces two glucose molecule upon breakage of the glycosidic bond ( the C-O-C bond in between as in the picture below). Whereas sucrose or even starch produces only one glucose upon breakage of one glycosidic bond.

Is trehalose any special compared to sucrose?

Yes in many ways. Creatures which contains trehalose can survive in extreme cold conditions and even without water they can survive. Trehalose prevents protein aggregation which normally happens in extremely dry conditions.

Ever imagined how plants grow in deserts, where no water is there?

It’s because those plants contain trehalose and they may crack and dry out but revive again during rain due to the function of trehalose (which I will discuss later).

There has been a great amount of research done and going on about the wonder functions of trehalose and how human beings can benefit from them.

Trehalose is present in a wide variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, insects, invertebrates and in some plants. However, humans do not contain this sugar in their body. We don’t have enzymes to produce this. The interesting thing is, we have enzymes to break trehalose (called trehalase) but not to build it.

How do we get trehalose for commercial use?

Extracting trehalose was once a difficult and very costly process. That’s why it wasn’t commercialized until the year 2000 when a Japanese (Okayama) company discovered an efficient cost-effective process to extract trehalose from starch. After that the cost of trehalose fall dramatically. Today it is available in the market at a very cheap price.

How does trehalose help to survive in extremely dry conditions?

The success of trehalose compared to structurally similar sugar can be attributed to it’s high chemical stability and high hydrophilicity.

High chemical stability because of 1,1′-glycosidic bond in trehalose makes it a non-reducing sugar, which gives it resistant towards hydrolysis in acidic conditions. It’s melting point is around 203 degrees. Its stability over a wide range of temperature and pH gives it an advantage over other sugars.

High hydrophilicity because water molecules are trapped in it due to its unique structure. In another way, the structure of trehalose disrupts the tetrahedral structure of hydrogen bonds. It gets in between the hydrogen bonds of water. Due to this disruption, water molecules cannot show it’s normal properties like crystallizing at a lower temperature. That is why trehalose is so important in organisms to survive in extreme cold weathers.

Moreover, it can stabilize DNA, stops aggregation of proteins and stabilizes membrane functions. Water is indispensable to life and trehalose helps organisms to survive in difficult conditions by manipulating normal properties of water.

How can we utilize trehalose to get maximum benefits?

Because of it’s higher thermostability and poor reactivity towards amino compounds it can mask unpleasant taste and odor of foods. Therefore, it is widely used as a preservative to maintain the quality of foods. US Food and Drug Administration recognized it as safe for humans in 2000.

Trehalose also has a suppressive effect on the oxidation of fatty acids. Oxidation of fatty acids in the body generates unsaturated aldehydes which are responsible for an unpleasant body odor, especially in older people. No wonder trehalose is a hit product in the cosmetic market.

Due to it’s ability to keep water under control, it is used as an eyedropper to treat dry eyes. Although the human body cannot generate trehalose, we have enzyme trehalase present which can break trehalose into two glucose molecule (which indicates that our body had been exposed to trehalose long back).

One of the most engrossing research studies is whether trehalose can protect human tissues from extreme weather and other oxidative stress as they do in case of lower organisms?

Some in vivo studies shows positive results in that way. However, a lot to be done in that direction.

Before we get too excited, a very recent research paper warned us about the exposure of trehalose to the human body.

C. diff (Clostridium difficile) is a deadly bacterium for humans. In recent years, UK, Europe, USA have seen an outbreak of C. diff bacterium at hospitals. The study shows that this deadly bacterium has a unique mechanism to breakdown the low concentration of trehalose and thus flourish in the body. Now trehalose is very commonly used in cake, pastry, fruit juices, chocolates due to its low calorific value. It’s no wonder if trehalose is giving the bacteria a growing environment, it will soon become a superbug (Know here about Superbug).

So what’s the conclusion about trehalose?

First of all, more research is required to know some more insights. Trehalose can be a weapon to humankind in the future. It can make us more robust and we may able to survive at the extreme conditions of nature we can’t imagine now. We may be able to eliminate a lot of deadly diseases utilizing it. To achieve that along with research we need awareness among people. It has a lot of potentials to become a boon to humankind but at the same time, we have to know the limitations.

Why awareness you are thinking?

Because who knows the sweetener in your favorite ice cream might lead to the growth of a superbug in your body.

Remember the quote by Paulo Coelho.

Have a cognizant week. Until next time. -Joy


  1. Extraction of Trehalose
  2. Pure Appl. Chem. trehalose
  3. Caution about trehalose, recent Nature Paper
  4. Trehalose: a multifunctional molecule

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