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More than just 'empty' calories: polysaccharides in food

Oligosaccharides and low-molecular polysaccharides are polymers made of different sugar units. Specialist companies such as Esslingen-based Anoxymer GmbH are focusing on plant sugar structures that have a therapeutic and preventive benefit.

The sight of sweets can make our mouth water; human tongues and palates enjoy sweet things. There is a good reason why our senses react so positively to sweet food: polysaccharides are not only an effective fuel for our metabolism, but, depending on their molecular structure, might also have a health benefit. Esslingen-based Anoxymer GmbH develops plant extracts containing bioactive oligo- and polysaccharides. These extracts are used in food and food additives to boost healing processes and prevention.
Dr. Dietrich Paper is head of R&D at Anoxymer. (Photo: Anoxymer GmbH)
Initially, a suitable plant species has to be found that contains sufficient amounts of the desired substance. Then, the saccharides have to be enriched and/or modified so as to have a defined benefit. Dr. Dietrich Paper is head of R&D at Anoxymer and explains the benefit of certain sugar structures in counteracting harmful oxidation processes in the body: “Antioxidative oligosaccharides have slightly different action mechanisms; these differences depend on chain length and the way the monosaccharides are interconnected. Very small alterations in the molecular structure might change the saccharides’ effect.” Paper and his team have started looking for optimal sugar structures for specific effects and producing them on an industrial scale using elaborate production processes.

Small structural changes – big effect

The company team has already achieved a breakthrough with Anoxymins®. The company developed a method for obtaining extracts from plants such as lemon-scented verbena and turning them into standardized products consisting of the bioactive oligosaccharide Anoxymin. Like vitamin C, Anoxymins have a radical scavenging activity. Free radicals are very reactive and often lead to oxidative stress. “But Anoxymins can do a lot more. For example, they are able to inhibit enzymes such as xanthinoxidase that contribute to the formation of radicals. In addition, Anoxymins also lead to the reduction of transcription factors such as AP1 and NF Kappa B, which play a major role in inflammatory processes,” explains Paper.
The process does not stop with the production of primary plant extracts that contain the sought-after active substances. The substances then have to be adapted to the final product to which they will be added. Anoxymer GmbH also possesses the specific know-how for such a process. “It makes a difference whether an extract with a defined effect is added to a beverage or dough. If the product contains fat, then the extract has to be modified accordingly,” affirms Paper. Finally, comprehensive analyses show whether the final product has the sought-after effect and whether the oligosaccharide remains chemically and physically stable.

As an innovative company, Anoxymer does not intend to rest on the laurels gained by the success with the Anoxymins. The company’s researchers are also looking at galactans, low-molecular polysaccharides consisting of galactose (glucose stereoisomer). Paper believes that the galactans have huge potential in the defense against bacteria in the intestines. The intestinal walls are coated with endothelial cells that carry adhesion molecules on their surface. Structures of the bacterial cell envelope might dock to the adhesion molecules and induce an infection. When contained in food, it is assumed that these galactans prevent this initial docking step by occupying the bacteria’s potential docking sites.
Photo of red algae
Anoxymer GmbH produces algal polysaccharides such as carrageenans from red algae (Chondrus). (Photo: Anoxymer GmbH)

The extracts must be adapted to the final product

Photo of algae
Fucus species are also suitable as suppliers of algal polysaccharides. (Photo: Anoxymer GmbH)

Preventing infections with galactans and carrageenans

“We are hoping to produce relatively small galactans with a molecular weight of below 10,000, which do not usually occur in the food we eat. We are able to isolate them from carrot and algae extracts with an optimised degradation process (heating),” said Paper who also uses specific algal extracts to isolate carrageenans, a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides. Carrageenans are found in the cell wall of brown and red algae. It is assumed that they also have an anti-inflammatory effect in that they inhibit the aforementioned adhesion mechanisms. “Not all algal species possess carrageenans; at present, we are mainly interested in the red algae Chondrus crispus,” said Paper.

Paper does not give away the secret of the method of preparation of the algae for the isolation of useful carrageenans – this is proprietary company knowledge. But it is known that heating the algae plays a major role in this process. “Basically, the modification of oligo- and polysaccharides is an optimized heating process, in which temperature, duration and occasionally also the pH is changed or salts are added for best results,” said Paper. 

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