Could syrup that could potentially fight cancer be coming soon to a supermarket near you?
Brock University biologist Jeff Stuart has teamed up with the Niagara-based company Sweet and Sticky to research ways of fortifying the company’s Cabernet Franc and Vidal ice syrups. Ice syrup is a non-alcoholic product made from icewine grapes that is sold as a gourmet ingredient throughout the world.
Stuart, students Shehab Selim and Breanne Gillie, and Sweet and Sticky president Steve Murdza are heading to Queen’s Park Wednesday, Feb. 17 for an event showcasing research across Ontario.
Stuart, who is a professor of Biological Sciences and a research fellow with Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, and his team are studying how to introduce resveratrol and other polyphenols extracted from grape skins into the company’s products.
Resveratrol, a molecule that research has shown to slow the growth of cancer cells and tumours, is found in the “pomace” of grapes, that is, skins and seeds of the fruit remaining after grapes have been pressed.
A good amount of resveratrol makes its way into wines – particularly reds – from pomace during the fermentation process of regular wine production, mainly because resveratrol is soluble in ethanol.
But, “in ice syrup, the levels of resveratrol and related molecules are lower, because it’s not a fermentation process so there is no alcohol,” explains Stuart. “Our challenge was to increase these levels.”
Since resveratrol is not soluble in water, Stuart and his team had to figure out a way to increase its concentration in ice syrup. They hit upon the idea of using a carrier molecule.
“The carrier molecule is hydrophilic, so it likes to be in water,” explains Stuart. “One resveratrol molecule fits neatly inside the carrier molecule’s structure and there it is shielded from water while the outside structure of carrier is interacting with the surrounding water. This way the amount of resveratrol that can be packed into water, or ice syrup, is greatly increased. The carrier molecule is safe to consume and virtually tasteless itself.
The carrier molecule’s structure is shaped like a donut or a life preserver, which has the added benefit of protecting resveratrol during the initial stages of digestion.
“Once it gets into the GI tract the carrier molecule is metabolized and resveratrol is released and taken up into the bloodstream,” says Stuart. “Lots of times, molecules can have well-documented effects, but if you can’t get them to the sites where they exert these effects, then it doesn’t matter,” he says. The carrier helps resveratrol and other beneficial molecules to reach their site of absorption.
“This is a way to go from having relatively low levels of these resveratrol molecules in ice syrup to having potentially more than is found in any wines,” explains Stuart.
“With the recent bad press on sugar, this infused ice syrup product would actually allow the company to promote ice syrup as a sugar that could have the reality of being healthy for you,” says Sweet and Sticky president Steve Murdza.
Stuart says he and his team still need to do more testing before their innovation makes its way into Sweet and Sticky’s products “but the preliminary results are promising and the research continues to be funded and to progress toward commercialization.”
Student Gillie is excited about the research she and her colleagues have been conducting.
“It obviously has big health implications but there are also ecological implications,” she says. “It’s a big way to reduce food waste that we put into the environment, and it creates an extra revenue stream for farmers, which is great.”
The research team’s February 17 visit to Queen’s Park is part of Research Matters’ Queen’s Park Pop-Up Research Park, an annual event in which researchers from universities across Ontario showcase their work to politicians and policy makers.
This year’s theme focuses on student involvement in university-industry/community partnerships.
“I think it’s good that politicians are trying to learn more about science and it’s going to be interesting that we get to know more about politics,” says student Selim.
Research Matters is a collaborative project among Ontario’s 21 publicly assisted universities to build new bridges between university researchers and the broader public. The Council of Ontario Universities coordinates the project.