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CHLA researcher develops food bar that reduces risk of potentially fatal hypoglycemia

Zbars help prevent dangerous drops in blood sugar levels.

Photo by Jon Nalick

For years, Barbara Averill suffered nightly blood sugar drops so severe they threatened to plunge her into a diabetic coma as she slept.

To maintain her blood sugar levels, she used to get up three times a night to test her blood and snack on M&M’s, graham crackers and orange juice that remained in arm’s reach on her nightstand.

“In May I had a bad night. My husband almost had to call an ambulance because my blood sugar wouldn’t go back up. I used to have nights like that once a week, but now I barely have them at all,” said Averill, 32, of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Azerill is one of the first people to benefit from a new medical food, called “Zbar,” designed to reduce the incidence of hypoglycemia among insulin-dependent diabetics.

Created by Francine Kaufman, a leading endocrinologist and researcher at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, Zbar helps diabetics like Averill to maintain a more stable blood sugar level, especially overnight.

“This has helped me tremendously-it’s almost like a miracle bar.,” Averill said.

Kaufman, who has been with CHLA since serving her internship in 1976, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

She worked with Baker Norton Pharmaceuticals Inc., to formulate uncooked cornstarch, which usually has an unpleasant taste, into a tasty 110-calorie bar that is low in fat.

The uncooked cornstarch, the bar’s active ingredient, is a complex carbohydrate which triggers gradual and consistent absorption of glucose by the body.

Kaufman said the bar is not designed to rescue people suffering from hypoglycemia, but is effective in preventing the condition.

While most carbohydrates are completely absorbed by the body within three hours, Zbar can take as long as nine hours to absorb, assuring a steady supply of glucose for the body.

In a recent study at a summer camp for diabetics, age 14 to 30, Kaufman showed that the bar decreased hypoglycemia events by as much as 78 percent among those who consumed it compared to those who did not.

Reducing the number of low blood sugar episodes also indirectly reduces the number of hyperglycemia-excessive blood sugar- episodes because people have a tendency to overtreat a low reaction, Kaufman said.

Packaged and sold in boxes of five, Zbars are available in three flavors: chocolate crunch, mandarin orange and peanut butter. They sell for about a dollar each.

Although consumers can purchase Zbars without a prescription, they are intended for use under medical supervision and will be marketed exclusively through pharmacies.

About 8 million Americans are currently under treatment for diabetes and of those, 3.8 million are on insulin therapy.

“So far, the positive response has been overwhelming,” Kaufman said. “I’ve spent my life in academic medicine and it feels pretty good when you realize where your contribiution can be made.”

Averill, who has suffered from diabetes for 21 years, said Zbar has significantly improved her life.

“I tell everyone about it. It’s phenomenal. There’s no other way to describe it.”

CHLA researcher develops food bar that reduces risk of potentially fatal hypoglycemia

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