Carbohydrates (sugars) can be found in almost the unlikeliest of places: in sugar beet, but also in algae, and even in wood. The chemical components and structure of these sugars differ, however. 

They exist as simple chains, but also as more complex, long chains known as polysaccharides, which can be cleaved into shorter chains (oligosaccharides). This gives the chains different properties according to their length.

The taste of algae

Some oligosaccharides are of particular interest because they can be used as prebiotics. They promote the growth of certain species of bacteria in our gut, which is conducive to better health.
One of the projects VITO is associated with is the INTERREG project ValgOrize, which uses ‘algae’ as its basic product. The purpose of the project is to study what factors can improve the taste of algae and therefore increase consumers’ consumption of algae.  As part of this project, VITO is researching whether the polysaccharides in green and brown algae can be cleaved into oligosaccharides using enzymes. Oligosaccharides have a positive effect on human and animal health. This cleaving (hydrolysis) is not done using chemical agents, as is currently the case, but rather with enzymes. The milder conditions and the use of a biocatalyst make it possible to control this process more easily, which results in the production of oligosaccharides of a certain length. The lower temperature makes the process more energy efficient and prevents the discolouration of the product, which in turn requires less effort to purify it. In the OligoCar project (a BEL-SME project), the basic product consists of polysaccharides from red algae. This project is also researching whether the oligosaccharides obtained after enzymatic cleavage of these polysaccharides can be used as prebiotics. Work is under way at the same time to investigate whether these oligosaccharides can be used to promote the growth of plants or to increase their resistance to certain diseases.

Prebiotics for humans and animals

Valuable sugars can also be obtained from wood. As part of the Biowood project (a Strategic Basic Research project of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) in collaboration with KULeuven and UA), VITO is cleaving polysaccharides (xylan and mannan) into oligosaccharides (xylooligosaccharides and mannan oligosaccharides). VITO’s aim in this project is to find our whether these specific oligosaccharides may be useful as prebiotics for humans and animals.