Rise of Deadly Superbug Clostridium Difficile Fueled by Sugar in Chewing Gum and Packaged Foods

A sweetener considered safe could be fueling superbugs. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Updated| A common additive found in packaged foods, baked goods and jam might have helped spur the rise of two deadly strains of bacteria. Known as Clostridium difficile, or C-Diff, the bacteria has become a problem in hospitals across the world.

Related: Which Sugar is the Worst for You? Study Shows What Sweets Do the Most Harm

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015, nearly 500,000 people are hospitalized each year from the infection. In the U.S., 29,000 people died within a month of contracting the infection, though only 15,000 were directly caused by the bacteria.

In America and Europe, two particular strains are linked to the problem, and public health officials and researchers have been looking into why they've gained traction more recently.

"These lineages have been present in people for years without causing major outbreaks; in the 1980s they were not epidemic or hypervirulent but after the year 2000 they began to predominate and cause major outbreaks," said study co-author Dr. James Collins, a postdoctoral associate at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, in a statement. We wanted to know what had helped these lineages become a major health risk."

As they note in the release, the bacteria isn't new, but has become the most common infection acquired in hospitals in the last 15 years.

Although many believe that antibiotic use made the situation worse, Collins and his team focused on what the strains use as fuel instead. After recognizing the bacteria survived on small amounts of trehalose, a sugar used as an additive and also found in certain foods in small quantities, researchers tested the substance in lab mice.

The animals were given a strain of the RT027 bacteria and fed a diet with or without trehalose, according to the release. They found that mice who ate the sweet diets had a higher mortality rate. The team also discovered that RT027 and RTO78 strains used the substance in different ways, reported Gizmodo. The RT027 version is fueled by only small amounts of trehalose due to a modified protein while RT078 has genes that make it easier to metabolize the sugar.

While trehalose is generally considered safe, this study makes a case for further research, especially since public health officials are concerned about the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"Bacterial infections that were treatable for decades are no longer responding to antibiotics, even the newer ones," said Dr. Dennis Dixon, a bacterial and fungal disease expert at the National Institute of Health, in a post on the organization's website. Adding to the concern is the lack of research in developing new antibiotics as resources have declined over the past 30 years, according to a story on The Pharmaceutical Journal.

"An important contribution of this study is the realization that what we once considered a perfectly safe sugar for human consumption, can have unexpected consequences," Collins said in a statement. "Our study suggests that the effect of trehalose in the diet of patients in hospitals with RT027 and RT078 outbreaks should be further investigated."

*This story was updated to include more information about antibiotic resistant bacteria.