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Inside the tumultuous battle for “healthy” sugar technology

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A new type of sugar mill is taking shape in a disused insurance office building on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia. The 48,000-square-foot factory is being built by Bonumose, a company partially sponsored by Hershey. It makes use of maltodextrin, a processed maize product present in many fast meals. Maltodextrin, like its infamous cousin high-fructose corn syrup, is calorically identical to table sugar (sucrose), is just as harmful to your teeth, and actually produces greater blood sugar spikes.

Maltodextrin, on the other hand, is a raw material for Bonumose, not a component. When it’s pumped into the company’s glistening bioreactors later this year, it’ll produce tagatose, a “rare sugar.” It is found in minute amounts in fruits, cereals, and milk and is nearly as sweet as sucrose but has half the calories. Tagatose can really enhance dental and digestive health, as well as normalize insulin levels, according to the way it is digested.

Although the FDA has long recognized tagatose as a safe food additive, it has been prohibitively costly and impossible to isolate—until now. Hershey claims that Bonumose’s technology, which is designed to convert maltodextrin into tagatose at commercial sizes at a low cost, is vital to its efforts to develop next-generation “better-for-you” chocolates.

“If we can sell anything near the volume of high-fructose corn syrup, we’re talking tens of billions of dollars in income,” says Bonumose CEO Ed Rogers. “And the impact on public health might potentially save trillions of dollars in health-care expenses.”

Bonumose’s multi-enzyme conversion technology was developed at a firm spun out of Yi-Heng “Percival” Zhang’s Virginia Tech lab. Zhang, who was born in China, is a bioengineer with a long list of honors and innovations to his name. For his work in converting the sugar from farm waste into cheap ethanol, Esquire magazine named him one of America’s “best and brightest” in 2006. His lab spun out firms that are developing a sugar-powered “battery” for cellphones, producing medicinally beneficial chemicals, and investigating the use of sugar to create hydrogen for fuel-cell cars. Zhang’s email signature at Virginia Tech once said, “Sugar will be the new oil.”

But Zhang is no longer the proud leader of Bonumose’s research division, nor is he developing healthy chocolate or racing a sugar-powered automobile. In January, he was sitting alone in an empty lab in Tianjin, China, after completing a two-year supervised release term in Virginia for conspiracy to defraud the US government, making false claims, and obstruction of justice. He still appears bewildered as a result of his interactions with Rogers, his former business partner, and the US government. According to Zhang, he was only guilty of bad judgment and ignorance of the laws; he sees himself as a guy dragged down by treachery. “They tricked me out of the technology.” “They robbed me and stole everything,” he claims.

However, if you listen to Bonumose, you will hear about the success of American enterprise over the Communist government of China. “We did not defraud anyone,” Rogers said to MIT Technology Review. “Even though we had a tense struggle with Zhang, we don’t wish him any harm at this time.” Maybe he wants to blame someone else, but he needs to look in the mirror.”

Whatever version is closest to the truth, one thing is certain. If sugar is the new oil, the global war for control has already begun.

Most people adore sugar for its delectably sweet flavor and propensity to spike blood sugar levels, but Zhang is more interested in the energy it contains. Zhang’s parents were physicists in Wuhan, China, and he grew up wanting to be like scientists like Edison, Curie, and Pasteur. He moved to the United States in 1997 for a PhD at Dartmouth College, where he met his wife, after studying biochemical engineering in Shanghai.

His first excitement was for biofuels, which were a hot study issue in the early 2000s. Zhang verified a procedure at Dartmouth for expediting the conversion of agricultural waste such as maize leaves and rice straw into sugars, and subsequently into ethanol for fuel—the “sugar-powered automobile” that piqued Esquire’s interest.

Zhang joined Virginia Tech in 2005 as a tenure-track professor in the department of biological systems engineering. Joe Rollin, an enthusiastic young chemical engineer fresh out of the US Army, was one of his first graduate students. “I was seeking to combine my skills with assisting in the mitigation of geopolitical conflict,” Rollin explains. “Biofuels were the natural choice. And entrepreneurship came up right away on my first meeting with Percival.”

His experience foreshadowed those of later researchers. The Department of Justice began the China Initiative the same year Zhang was sentenced, with the goal of combatting Chinese economic espionage and national security risks. According to MIT Technology Review, the program, which targeted a number of researchers and professors, disproportionately harmed those of Chinese descent, who made up 88 percent of those accused. In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen announced the termination of the project, stating, “We helped give birth to a damaging notion that the department uses a lesser standard to investigate and prosecute criminal activity relating to [China].”

 

Zhang, who is still a US citizen, has continued to publish works on enzymes, bioengineering, and unusual sugars, some in partnership with Chun You and Zhiguang Zhu, who also run successful laboratories at TIB. He has no intentions to return to the United States in the near future.

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