Upcycled Plants, Explained
Don’t we all feel at least a bit guilty about the food that we waste in our busy, modern lives? According to the Food and Drug Administration, Americans waste 133 billion pounds of food every year, or about 30–40% of total food supply.
That’s a lot!
In fact, a 2015 study by Brian Roe, Professor and Faculty Lead at The Ohio State University’s Food Waste Collaborative found that 77% of respondents felt guilty about the amount of household food that was thrown out each week.
A percentage of our leftover food becomes compost and fertilizer, but much more unconsumed food ends up in landfills. So much so that household and retail food waste contributes as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
But there’s also another side to the story. On the one hand, there’s household and restaurant food waste, which is the food that goes uneaten, and ends up in landfills, having taken enormous energy and labor to grow, transport, and refrigerate throughout its life.
And then there’s unused agricultural fiber, the plant components that either go unused, or converted into lower value use without ever making it into the food system for human consumption. There is more of this type of plant fiber on earth than the total amount of cane sugar, starch, flour and vegetable oil combined.
For example, every ton of corn grain harvested results in another ton of leftover husks, leaves, and stalk. And corn is one of the most efficiently harvested crops, where the least amount of plant fiber is wasted.
According to Prof. Paul Dupree, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at Cambridge University: “The corn grain harvest index can average around 50% of the total above ground biomass as grain on a dry matter basis at maturity, which is actually pretty amazing”.
Sugarcane, on the other hand, has a grain-to-fiber ratio of only 20 percent — the remaining 80% of the plant is left over plant fiber in the form of tops, straw, and bagasse, the pulp that remains after cane juice is extracted. This is part of the reason for sugarcane’s dramatic impact on the environment — we grow much more than is needed to produce sugar.
While agricultural scientists are continually developing crop plants that have more grain and less fiber per plant, the reality remains that parts of the plant are typically considered low value, and unusable by humans.
These agricultural leftovers are typically ploughed under, burnt, left to rot, or turned into animal bedding or feed. But on a planet where there’s a growing need to produce more nutrition for more people, we need new ways to transform that previously low value fiber into higher value nutritional products for humans.
This is especially pressing given that fiber is the only macronutrient that the majority of Americans don’t get enough of — we get enough sugars, carbs, proteins and fats.
According to the dictionary, upcycling means “to reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.”
Tom Simmons, CEO of Supplant, is a scientist whose decade-long research into plant fiber and carbohydrates gave him the insight to subsequently discover a novel method for upcycling this unused plant fiber into a higher value product — sugars from fiber.
“I knew that to help solve the climate change and biodiversity crises, we needed to do something sustainable with unused plant fiber. And to help solve global hunger, and chronic malnutrition, we need to find a way to upcycle plant material that already exists, but would otherwise go unused by humans.”
The result of Simmons’ research at The Supplant Company is a patented method for upcycling unused or low value commodities into “sugars from fiber,” which perform like sugar in the kitchen, but have half the calories of cane sugar, a healthy dose of fiber, and prebiotic properties. They even brown and caramelize like cane sugar.
And by upcycling agricultural leftovers, they help crop harvests be as much as twice as efficient in producing food for human consumption, which means much more food can be produced per acre than before.
Supplant sugars from fiber are coming to the United States this fall.