The Download: Inside the fierce, messy fight over “healthy” sugar tech

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Inside the fierce, messy fight over “healthy” sugar tech

In a former insurance office building on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, a new kind of sugar factory is taking shape. The facility is being developed by a startup called Bonumose, funded in part by Hershey. It uses a processed corn product called maltodextrin that is found in many junk foods. Like its notorious counterpart high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin is calorically similar to table sugar (sucrose), is just as bad for your teeth, and actually causes worse blood sugar spikes.

But for Bonumose, maltodextrin isn’t an ingredient—it’s a raw material. When it’s poured into the company’s gleaming bioreactors later this year, what emerges will be a “rare sugar” called tagatose. Found naturally in small concentrations in fruit, some grains, and milk, it is nearly as sweet as sucrose but apparently with only around half the calories, and wider health benefits like stabilizing insulin levels. Hershey says that Bonumose’s technology, designed to affordably convert maltodextrin into tagatose at commercial scales, is critical to its effort to formulate “better-for-you” candies.

Bonumose’s process originated in a company spun out of the Virginia Tech lab of Yi-Heng “Percival” Zhang. But Zhang today isn’t sitting proudly at the helm of Bonumose’s research division, or formulating healthy chocolate. When MIT Technology Review spoke to him in January, he was sitting alone in an empty lab in Tianjin, China, after serving a two-year sentence of supervised release in Virginia for conspiracy to defraud the US government, making false statements, and obstruction of justice. If sugar is the new oil, the global battle to control it has already begun. Read the full story.

—Mark Harris

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US might be in the middle of a covid wave right now
Without even realizing, due to a lack of testing. (Bloomberg $)
+ Infections keep rising and rising in Shanghai, despite a local lockdown. (SCMP)
+ Residents trapped indoors are begging for food on WeChat groups. (Rest of World)
+ More than 50 people have tested positive following an A-list political dinner last week. (NYT $)
+ But Dr Anthony Fauci is confident President Biden is protected against the virus. (The Guardian)

2 Elon Musk isn’t joining Twitter’s board after all
Which, to echo CEO Parag Agrawal, is probably for the best. (WP $)
+ His tweets in the last few days have been erratic. (CNN)

3 Putin superfans are praising him as a peace-loving hero in Facebook groups
These pages rack up millions of interactions a month. (BBC)
+ Smartphones and gym mats helped Ukrainians to defend Kiev. (FT $)
+ What an American has learnt from fighting in Ukraine’s foreign legion. (The Economist $)

4 The crypto industry is pushing for more lenient legislation
And it’s working. (NYT $)
+ Crypto is a taxation minefield. (Protocol)
+ The world’s first city-cryptostate for investors and enthusiasts sounds exhausting. (FT $) 

5 The remarkable brain of a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages 🧠
His brain uses oxygen much more efficiently than our non-polyglot gray matter. (WP $)
+ The first reference charts for brain development have been completed. (The Economist $)

6 Why Amazon’s drone ambitions never really got off the ground
Former employees claim its rapid testing cuts corners when it comes to safety. (Bloomberg $)
+ Amazon has a huge sustainability problem: its returns. (CNBC)

7 What happens when humans get blamed for decisions made by faulty software?
Our blind faith in computers is leading to miscarriages of justice. (FT $)

8 We’re inventing new terms to get around social media moderation
Like most things these days, it’s spearheaded by trying to appease TikTok’s all-powerful algorithm. (WSJ $)

9 Producing tiny microchips is bigger business than ever
We desperately need more chips, and Intel wants to deliver them. (NYT $)
+ BMW believes the chip shortage shows no sign of slowing before 2023. (Reuters)

10 South Asia’s brides-to-be are shopping for wedding outfits through WhatsApp
But it’s a risky endeavor—assessing fabric color and quality is harder over video. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“This virus is not scary, the scary thing is being in a complete lockdown.” 

—A woman from Shanghai who has tested positive for covid fears being taken away from her infant son amid the city’s indefinite lockdown, according to Quartz.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ This inquisitive California newt wants to know why you’re in his creek.
+ In more swamp-like news: does Al Pacino have a Shrek phone case? It appears so!
+ The fabulous Little Mix are playing a load of songs for the first time as their new farewell tour kicks off.
+ Don’t shoot the messenger, but the party’s over for owners of “pumpkin spice dogs.”
+ The Depths of Wikipedia Twitter account is always reliably deranged.
+ I could watch this video of how to make peanut butter all day.
+ Give this soulful kitty a record contract—stat!

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