Editorial Feature

Using Sensors to Distinguish Between Sugars

Platforms that allow us to distinguish between various types of sugar are vitally important, particularly for applications in healthcare.

Image Credit: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock.com

Sugar occurs in many forms. In food and drink, sugar can appear in the form of sucrose, fructose, glucose, and others, such as maltose.

In nature, glucose, fructose, and sucrose are also abundant, as well as ribose. Lactose is commonly found in the milk of mammals and glucose is found circulating in our bloodstreams.

Methods that allow us to non-invasively track blood sugar are important for wearable devices as well as clinical or health monitoring practices.

People with type I or type II diabetes must track their blood sugar levels as part of their disease management to prevent hyperglycemia (high blood glucose levels) and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose levels).

Traditionally this means an invasive finger prick test. Now, with the revolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor technology, scientists have begun exploring how invasive techniques can be replaced by non-invasive, sensor-based methods.

Overcoming the Limitations of Current Technology

In recent years, sensor technology has advanced so that it can detect blood sugar in a non-invasive way. However, these methods are often deemed not to be as accurate as invasive methods. Approaches to identifying sugars for other purposes are also limited by the complex technology required.

In 2022, a team of Chinese scientists published their research into developing a novel stretchy film for distinguishing sugars in the journal American Chemistry Society Nano. The researchers created a kaleidoscope-like film capable of distinguishing different types of sweeteners. The recognition of each type of sugar is displayed by a unique color that appears when the film is stretched with a simple apparatus. The novel film may overcome the limitations of currently available techniques for distinguishing between sugars.

Developing a Wearable Sensor to Detect Sugar

To overcome the limitations of traditional sugar detection processes, a research team led by Fengyu Li expanded on previous research; they had successfully created a method that used polystyrene nanospheres whose color shifted in the presence of sugar compounds.

The resultant chip sensor was able to identify 12 different sugars from one another. The sensor, however, was not wearable. Therefore, Fengyu Li and colleagues embarked on a new research project, extending this previous work, incorporating photonic crystals into a stretchable film, that the team hoped would function as a wearable capable of detecting 14 different sugars.

First, the team embedded rows of polystyrene nanospheres into a polyethyl acrylate film. When stretched, the film displayed different colors of the rainbow, responding to the different forces placed on the material at different distances. At a uniform force (not stretched), the film shows as red.

Gorgeous Rainbow-Colored, Stretchy Film that Distinguishes Sugars | Headline Science

Video Credit: American Chemical Society/YouTube.com

The team’s initial experiments involved tagging 14 sugars with dyes. The first results showed that stretching the film enhanced the fluorescent signals of these different sugars. The initial samples were taken from beverages and sweat. The signals produced from the sugars in these samples could be sorted from one another, distinguishing the unique sugars.

Next, the team designed experiments to test if the platform would work similarly with real-world samples. To do this, they created fluorescent complexes by mixing six commercially available drinks with the dye alizarin red S-2-diphenylboronic acid 2-aminoethyl ester.

Samples of the mixture were introduced to the film. The team then measured the fluorescence intensities at two unique wavelengths of light from the stretched film. The results showed that because the sugar-dye complex of each type of sugar produced a signature signal, the different sugars could be distinguished from each other.

Interestingly, the team also showed that the novel sensor could be used to accurately distinguish sweat samples from six different people. These results suggest that the technology could be leveraged to create a stretchable material for wearables in clinical applications, health monitoring, and environmental applications. There is also the possibility of adapting the material so that it can be used to detect other types of substances.

Future Directions

More development is needed before sensors based on this technology are available for use. It is likely, however, that in the coming years, we will see novel wearables emerge that use this technology to measure blood glucose or distinguish sugars in a variety of applications. It is also possible that the technology will be developed further to detect other substances.

Given the growth of the omics field of science, there is a great opportunity for wearable sensors to be used to detect substances that act as indicators of disease. Such wearables could be used in disease monitoring or could even be developed into a preventative tool. The material also has the potential to develop into tools for measuring compounds important to indicating environmental health.

Continue reading: Measuring Molasses in Large Storage Tanks

References and Further Reading

A Spoonful of Sugar: Are All Sugars the Same? [online]. UPMC. Available at: https://share.upmc.com/2019/03/are-all-sugars-the-same/ 

Flash glucose monitors and continuous glucose monitors [online]. Diabetes UK. Available at: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/diabetes-technology/flash-glucose-monitors-and-continuous-glucose-monitors 

Gorgeous rainbow-colored, stretchy film for distinguishing sugars (video) [online]. EurekAlert! Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/972185 

Xie, X. et al. (2022) A rainbow structural color by stretchable photonic crystal for saccharide identification,” ACS Nano, 16(12), pp. 20094–20099. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.2c08708.

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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