Project lands funding for healthy sugar substitute

GlycoMar has developed a seaweed substitute to replace sugar in chocolate. Picture: Christophe Ena/AP
GlycoMar has developed a seaweed substitute to replace sugar in chocolate. Picture: Christophe Ena/AP
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Some £500,000 in research funding has been awarded to a project that could eliminate more than half the calories from a bar of chocolate.

Scottish biotech firm GlycoMar and Norway’s MicroA, which earlier this year formed a joint venture to mass produce skincare ingredients from algae, have developed a seaweed substitute for sugar that will be tested by global confectioner Mars as part of the 12-month programme starting in July.

The money has been awarded by Innovate UK and Innovation Norway under their Industrial Biotechnology (IB) Catalyst funding competition.

The ingredient is a specialist carbohydrate sustainably manufactured from a marine microalgae that makes a tasteless replacement for the mass of sugar. It can then be sweetened with any of the various calorie-free alternatives currently available, according to GlycoMar founder Charlie Bavington.

“It is not the sweetness – what we are doing is replacing the bulk,” he explained. “It is about the texture. Without that, the chocolate wouldn’t feel right in your mouth.”

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There are 260 calories in a 58g Mars Bar, about 135 of which come from the 35g of sugar needed to make the chocolate. This could theoretically be cut to zero, leaving fat as the main source of calories.

The algae that produces the specialist carbohydrate is grown in Norway by Prasinotech, the skin care joint venture between GlycoMar and MicroA. It is then modified by GlycoMar at its facilities at the European Centre for Marine Biology near Oban before going into production.

The project began about three years ago when Mars approached GlycoMar about developing a healthier and more sustainable alternative to sugar. Up to a kilo of algae-based carbohydrate has already been produced under lab conditions, and this will rise to the “tens of kilos” needed to test at industrial pilot scale.

Set up in 2005, GlycoMar specialises in the development of new therapeutic products from marine resources. Prasinotech is the first venture in the world focused on the production of polysaccharides from microalgae, a species found in sea water.