New evidence has come out blaming the popular food additive trehalose for the proliferation of two highly virulent superbugs, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Hospitals around the country have been dealing with a steady increase in colitis cases; caused by certain strains of the Clostridium difficile bacteria. Symptoms of the illness can lead to severe diarrhea and even death.

Doctors and scientists have been mystified by the resurgence of two increasingly virulent bacterial strains in hospitals across the country, the Los Angeles Times reported. But it appears that the cause is the naturally-occurring sugar known as trehalose. It’s commonly added as a sweetener in nutritional drinks and energy products. Now researchers say the food additive could have had an unexpected consequence.

Nearly half a million Americans suffered from the infection in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 29,000 of those patients died within 30 days of the diagnosis and about 15,000 of those deaths were directly linked to the bacterial infection.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas examined the food additive and also noted that the superbugs began to proliferate around the same time companies began using it in some processed foods.

According to Nutrients Review, “Trehalose occurs naturally in small amounts in mushrooms, honey, lobsters, shrimps, certain seaweeds (algae), wine, beer, bread and other foods produced by using baker’s or brewer’s yeast.”

As a food additive, trehalose is artificially produced from corn starch. “Trehalose is heat stable and preserves the cell structure of foods after heating and freezing, so it is used as a food texturizer and stabilizer in dried foods, frozen foods, nutrition bars, fruit fillings and jams, instant noodles and rice, white chocolate, sugar coating, bakery cream, processed seafood and fruit juices,” Nutrients Review stated.

“Although considered an ideal sugar for use in the food industry, the use of trehalose in the United States and Europe was limited before 2000 owing to the high cost of production (approximately U.S. $700 per kilogram),” the authors in the study pointed out, according to the LA Times. “The innovation of a novel enzymatic method for low-cost production from starch made it commercially viable as a food supplement (approximately U.S. $3 per kilogram).”

The study is not 100 percent conclusive, but Jimmy D. Ballard from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center called the findings “compelling.”

According to Ballard, who was not part of the study, “It is impossible to know all the details of events surrounding the recent C. difficile epidemics, but the circumstantial and experimental evidence points to trehalose as an unexpected culprit.”

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