Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins famously sang that ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’. Children, the elderly and infirm, and those on regular medication will heartily endorse her words.

Healthy adults can take a few bitter pills or liquids for a short while, but long-term patients and people who find swallowing difficult come to dread the next dose.

For children, it can be far more serious. Although paediatric remedies are often in liquid form, children will struggle and even spit them out if they taste foul.

A second problem can be the texture. Medicines or supplements that contain elements like calcium can leave a gritty, chalky aftertaste.

Oxford Nutrascience, of Begbroke Science Park, is developing new ‘delivery systems’ for drugs and supplements that eradicate both the bitter taste and the chalky texture. Currently, the emphasis is on functional foods like Omega-3 oil, and supplements.

Chairman and chief technical officer Marcelo Bravo is a chemist and chemical engineer. After 16 years with Procter and Gamble, he moved to Boots R&D in Nottingham, working with Nutrascience’s chief executive Nigel Theobald.

Mr Bravo then founded his own company and worked on a successful calcium supplement, which he sold to Boots, and researched functional foods for women.

In February 2008, Nutrascience was established. Backed by £1m of funding, the company used Mr Bravo’s previous research to patent a delivery system within a year.

Their portfolio now consists of confectionery, a suspension and the Chewitab — all using chemistry to mask bitter tastes.

Soft chews are excellent for delivering supplements, as the chewing process aids delivery. They are made soft by balancing sucrose with glucose syrup, and adding minerals such as drugs or supplements can lead to crystals and the gritty taste.

The benefits of a chew can be outweighed by having too much sugar and fat; reducing both compromises taste and texture. It can even induce bitterness, too.

Nutrascience’s technology uses a unique blend of non-digestible fibres, replacing sugar and fat. The fibres are prebiotic, stimulating good bacteria in the digestive system and improving taste and texture.

Ellactiva calcium chews are the company’s first own-brand product, distributed and sold by Boots. These chews allow consumers to take a calcium supplement without the traditional chalky taste.

Suspensions are a common way to deliver medicaments and supplements, especially in paediatric form. Like the chew, they normally have chemicals and sweeteners for stability and taste. They also suffer from the ingredients dropping out of suspension.

Once again, the Nutrascience technology uses fibres that are naturally sweet, minimise or eradicate sweeteners altogether, and are prebiotic. The suspensions are stable, offer a long shelf life, and mask bitter-tasting ingredients.

The manufacturing process is much simpler than normal, using one step instead of six, and six ingredients, not 12.

Chewitabs produce a light crunch when bitten and then form a soft chew that dissolves quickly in the mouth and can be taken without water. They are suited to over-the-counter medicines such as analgesics, allergy treatments, digestive aids and medicines for the elderly, as well as vitamins and supplements.

September this year sees the launch of two new chews. The first, in conjunction with Ocean Nutrition Canada, contains Omega-3 fish oil. Not only does the oil have a strong taste, the high temperatures at which confectionery is traditionally cooked damages the oil. The new chew masks the oily flavour and is cooked at lower temperatures.

The second chew contains a cranberry concentrate, Cranmax. It takes 35kg of berries to produce 1kg of Cranmax, but two sweets are equivalent to three glasses of the juice, which has well-documented properties against urinary tract infections.

Mr Bravo is working with Oxford academics to research and define new drug delivery technologies.

He said: “Researching which drugs will work with which delivery systems is a key part of my job. I start with whatever problem clinicians are trying to solve, then see what else is being done around the world to address the issue.

“I talk to the doctors, the clinicians, R&D managers in drug companies, and I search patents. Patents are a really great indicator of what’s going on.”

Nutrascience is a virtual company. The five staff focus on commercial aspects, with R&D and manufacture outsourced. The usual business model is to outlicense. In February, the company floated on the Alternative Investment Market, raising £1.1m.

“We chose AIM because of experiences I have had in the past with venture capital, and it gives us access to further investments from institutions,” Mr Bravo said.

Chilean-born Mr Bravo was educated in the US but is a firm Anglophile.

“The UK is a great place to do pharma,”

he added.