FROM GARBAGE TO MEDICINE
What do fish heads, orange peel and grape skins all have in common? They’re rich in vitamins and minerals but often end up in the bin. Fiona Baker looks at a new project that aims to convert garbage into health-giving gold
One company’s food waste could be transformed into another’s treasure – or even a product that improves our health and wellbeing. This is the premise of research at the University of Sydney that’s investigating how discarded food can be rich in nutrients.
Professor Fariba Dehghani, of the university’s school of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is leading the ongoing project and says its aim is to find better ways to use the entire fruit, veg or seafood, including the skin and shells.
“Valuable resources are ending up as waste. But some of this waste can easily be converted into high-value products such as nutraceuticals – food products that are fortified with vitamins or minerals and that provide health benefits as well as nutritional value – or to generate energy,” Dehghani says.
According to global statistics, we consumers are a wasteful lot. Almost a third of food produced for human consumption – in 2011 that equated to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year – is either lost or wasted. That discarded food could feed the entire world’s population. The main culprits seem to be industry, as the food loss occurs primarily in the production-to-retail phase of the food chain.
But with research, some of these by-products of food production could end up making us healthier rather than rotting in landfill, Dehghani says, adding that her unit has partnered with several companies to assist in the investigation. Here are some of the interesting waste-conversion projects her team is exploring. Consumers may love to eat the sweet and juicy flesh of oranges, but when we – and the industry – throw away the skin, we’re binning not only a great source of fibre but also potential cancer-fighting properties. Dehghani says global research has found that the peel is high in antioxidants linked with fighting cancer. “Our researchers will be looking at how to extract the goodness from the peel,” she says. It may seem to just contain the juicy flesh, but grape skin is full of goodness, in particular the health-boosting polyphenol resveratrol. A University of Missouri study found that resveratrol made melanoma cells respond better to radiation treatment. Earlier studies have found it can also have a similar impact on prostate cancer cells.