Is an onion sweetener a bright bulb idea to combat diabetes?

 In the 2023 rabi season, onion production was estimated at 22.7 million tonnes.
In the 2023 rabi season, onion production was estimated at 22.7 million tonnes.


  • A novel onion waste-based sweetener is an incubated-startup idea picked by the Centre for national scaling up. In a country of carb-heavy diets, could it ease our diabetes burden?

The onion is a powerful vegetable, aside from being an esteemed essential in the kitchen, vested with the power to make the toughest of us cry. This is a defence mechanism against predators. Slice in, and it releases an irritant that makes our lachrymal glands wet our eyes. This is an elementary learning, common enough to explain why the familiar bulb crept into spoken English as a subject of knowledge: To ‘know one’s onions’ means to possess a basic mastery over something. But the onion may have got a starring role in this idiom for its complexity. Indeed, the veggie also gets deployed as an analogy in other exalted contexts that are even more abstract (and, with luck, also evolved). In the field of marketing, for example, where psychographic profiles matter as much as any demographic dividend, it has long been handy as a click-on-screen graphic. By one origin story, it was a Unilever marketing chief called Jerry Fisher who first said, “Consumer behaviour is like an onion. It has layers that need to be peeled back one at a time." Its real power in India, though, arises from the fact that it’s a staple for India’s poor. In the north, a bare survival diet has been observed to comprise little more than roti and onion with salt and green chili. No wonder its price has been an issue used in politics; that its over-limit hoarding is an offence (and even export banned) tells us a tale of its relevance not just to inflation, but the politics over it. News of an entirely new deployment of the wonder bulb, then, must not escape notice. In this case, in the onion may lie a response to an alarming health problem: diabetes.

Onions possess anti-diabetic properties and the country consumes an estimated 1.3-1.7 million tonnes of them on average every month. In the 2023 rabi season, onion production was estimated at 22.7 million tonnes. Amid a rising burden of diabetes, the consumer affairs ministry is reportedly working on a plan to launch a sweetener extracted from onion waste. This idea can be traced to a contest held by the Union ministry of consumer affairs. To spot innovative ways to tackle public challenges faced by onion farming in India, it held a Grand Challenge in August 2022. It asked for pitches of ideas to develop technologies for the processing, storage and valorization of onions. The winner was a sweetener proposal by a Karnataka-based startup Theraxcel Healthcare and it was funded. The project is currently at a preparatory stage, and expects to use caramelization (think of sugar burnt brownish) as a key process to extract a sweetener from onion peels. Already evaluated by teams of the ministry and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the final product is expected to be available in a range of retail packs by year end.

In a country where an estimated 101 million people are found to be living with diabetes, and many others may not even know they have it, the health motive of the project is impressive. The typical Indian diet is carbohydrate-heavy, which worsens the risk of diabetes. It is not a lifestyle illness of just the well-off, and those who get it must watch their sugar intake. How an onion sweetener may work, however, will not be entirely clear till greater details of the mystery product are made available. Does it aim to hold off or mitigate diabetes? Apart from ensuring it passes standard toxicology checks, it would help to know the efficacy levels for each specific claim made. If it’s a good option whose science fully checks out, it could catch on.

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