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Sugar in the pharmaceuticals industry

23/11/2023 By Ben Eastick in Applications Pharmaceutical

The growth of the global industrial sugar market is partly being fuelled by a rising demand for sugar in pharmaceutical applications, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. India’s Pharma Vision 2020 aims to establish the country as a global leader in pharmaceutical drug production, and this initiative has fast-tracked the construction of multiple new drug manufacturing facilities. In this blog, we take a closer look at pharmaceutical sugar, its evolution, its application in the pharmaceuticals industry, and why it’s so important for industry professionals to find a reliable supplier of industrial bulk sugar.

Sugar’s evolution in pharmaceuticals

In ancient civilisations, like those of the Romans and Greeks, sugar was used as a medicine, not as a food. Imported from India or Arabia, lumps of sugar were either chewed or dissolved in water and drunk to help relieve stomach, bladder or kidney pain. In Chinese medicine, sugar has long been used as a sweetener, while the Ancient Egyptians applied a mixture of honey and resin to wounds. When sugar is applied to a wound, it absorbs moisture and prevents bacterial growth.

Today, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of sugar for the pharmaceuticals industry, where sugar-based substances impact everything from drug formulation and solubility to patient compliance. Sugar’s influence on the safety, efficacy and behaviour of pharmaceutical drugs and medications is also broad and multi-layered.

A line of bottles being filled on a conveyor belt in a factory

Sugar syrups perform multiple functions in medicines, including bulking, as a carrier substance, to give mouthfeel and enhance flavour and colour.

The pharmaceuticals industry uses sugar, mainly sucrose, as a carrier substance, to add bulk to tablets and to make oral medication more palatable. However, pharmaceutical applications that traditionally favoured sucrose are turning to alternatives. For example, the market for pharma grade invert sugar syrup is expanding, particularly in India. A growing middle class has led to increased awareness of and demand for medical treatment, pushing drug manufacturers to turn to external sugar vendors to keep up with consumer requirements. As a result, several new bulk industrial sugar manufacturing facilities have sprung up across India, with this only partly satisfying demand.

As this demand grows, the pharma grade standard is essential.

Pharma grade sugar and how it is used

For a sugar-based substance to be considered ‘pharma grade’ in the UK, it must meet a chemical purity standard set by British Pharmacopoeia (BP). Drug manufacturers adhere to these standards to ensure the substances they use are free from contaminants and are of appropriate quality.

Pharma grade sugar syrups and pharma grade sucrose is used in a wide range of applications, including for coating, adding bulk or volume, as a flavour enhancer and preservative.

Sucrose, which is derived from either sugarcane or sugar beet, acts as a bulking agent and binder in tablets like lozenges, and as a sweetener, carrier syrup and flavour enhancer or thickening agent in liquid formulations like cough syrup. In syrup form, sucrose is used as a wet binder in tablets and coating for tablets, while in powdered form it operates as a dry binder and sweetener.

A selection of medical lozenges, cough and colds drops and pastilles against a white background

Medicated confectionery, a carrier for many over the counter and unregulated treatments, is typically made from glucose syrups, with a sweet taste and neutral colour.

Primarily used to counteract the unpleasant taste of the active ingredients in some medicines, pharma grade invert sugar syrup can add viscosity and act as a diluent. In addition, the sugar provides a quick hit of energy, such as may be needed in cold and flu medications and helps to extend shelf life and improve taste.

Pharmaceutical excipients

In the pharmaceutical industry, pharma grade sucrose is usually an excipient.  Pharmaceutical excipients are substances that are included in the production of a medicine but do not play an active pharmacological role. The excipient always has a specific purpose, such as being a binder or thickening agent. For this reason, excipients are considered ‘inert substances’. Excipients play a vital role in pharmaceutical formulations. For example, an excipient can enhance the dissolvability or stability of a drug. Sugar-based excipients are often used to improve a drug or medication’s compressibility or as a binding agent or sweetener. Examples of commonly used excipients include lubricants in tablets, sweeteners in liquid or solid medicines, and binders in tablets.

Yellow round sugar-coated tablets pills on a stainless steel drug tray

Sucrose is used both as a coating and as an excipient.

Every excipient must be properly validated. Various criteria is used to assess the suitability of the excipient for each formulation, including how it functions and if it is compatible with the active substances.

Disintegrants are excipients that improve or speed up dissolvability. Some natural excipient alternatives are used which mean the products may be classed as clean label products. Excipient alternatives include fenugreek seeds and locust bean gum which comes from the carob tree.

The sugar-based excipients market, which measures the use of sugar-based substances in pharmaceutical drug formulations, is expected to grow by 4.6% annually between 2023 and 2028. The fastest growing market is Asia-Pacific, while the largest market is currently North America.

Sugar in vaccine stability and drug manufacturing

The role of sugar in the pharmaceuticals industry extends to vaccines, where the sugars lactose and sucrose can act as stabilisers. Stabilisers are designed to support the integrity of the active ingredients in a vaccine throughout the manufacturing, storing and transportation process. It is the sugar-based stabiliser that ensures the vaccine remains effective after manufacturing, as time and temperature changes would otherwise reduce its efficacy.

Glass ampoules being filled on a production line in a pharmaceutical factory

Sugar syrups play a vital role in stabilising vaccines, and as a shelf-life extender.

There is also wide use of sugar in drug manufacturing. Drug manufacturers rely on having consistent access to pharma grade sugar for drug safety and efficacy and, ultimately, their reputation. One of the reasons sugar is used in drug formulations is to extend the medication’s shelf life and enhance the taste. Both these elements are crucial, which underlines the importance of being able to source high-quality sugar on a consistent and reliable basis.

Testing and quality assurance in pharmaceutical sugar

Given its use in drug and vaccine formulations, pharma grade sugar is subject to rigorous testing and quality assurance standards. The European Council’s European Pharmacopoeia (EP) is the legal and scientific benchmark against which all pharmaceutical products produced and sold in many countries worldwide are measured. This ensures standards remain high and only products of the highest quality are produced.

Running in parallel with the EP is, as we referenced earlier in this blog, the British Pharmacopoeia (BP). BP provides quality standards for the pharmaceutical and medicinal products produced and consumed in the UK and over 100, primarily former Commonwealth, countries. All sugars designated for use in the industry are given a British Pharmacopoeia Chemical Reference Substance (BPCRS), a document which outlines the exact chemical structure they must have to be classified fit for use.

Functional properties of sugars used in medicines

Alongside the sucrose and invert sugar syrups highlighted above, other sugar products are used in medicines for their functional properties, such as flavourings and colourants. Although still using high quality pure sugars, the nature of the medicine may not always require EP or BP. This is common in many over the counter (OTC) medicines and unregulated treatments.

For example, treacles and molasses are used to add colour and, because they have stronger flavour profiles, to flavour medicines with bitter and less palatable active ingredients. Ragus supplies treacles for use in cough linctus that provide a distinctive colour, sweetness and mouthfeel.

Medicine from a glass bottle being poured onto a teaspoon, with lozenges in the background

Treacle blends provide colour, flavour, mouthfeel and desired viscosity to ensure the medicine pours smoothly into the measuring spoon.

Highly specific functional properties are often needed for a medicine. These can include intense sweetness, colourlessness, specific viscosity for pouring characteristics and textures for mouthfeel, or a certain density that supports active ingredients and excipients in suspension. More complex formulations of liquid sugars, invert sugar syrups and glucose syrup mixes are developed to meet these needs.

However, it is generally necessary for pharmaceutical companies to meet high safety and quality assurance standards. It is therefore important pharmaceutical industry professionals and procurement managers consider the advantages of reliable sugar sourcing and adherence to regulatory standards when choosing a sugar supplier. By working closely with a trusted and knowledgeable sugar supplier, pharmaceutical professionals can meet these standards consistently.

Ragus manufactures high-quality pure sugars for medicines and industrial applications. To learn more, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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