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Ending food waste

This article first appeared in our Organic September issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 14 September 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

‘Imagine if Oprah promoted a low-cost, low-sugar, high-fibre apple juice or baby food that could stop childhood obesity and eliminate food waste, instead of a box of scented candles that costs $500’, says Defugo chair David Coleman.

That kind of exposure could lead to a sea change in perspective when it comes to accessibility to healthy foods – and Defugo has the technology to make it happen.

According to David, there is now ‘no excuse’ for US food companies not to make the switch to zero-sugar, high-fibre, carbon-negative ingredients in their products; ’Making foods and beverages that are bad for humans and the environment needs to be called out’, he tells us, ‘as there is now a viable, cheaper and healthier solution.’

Nutritious waste

The majority of plant fibres, oils, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins are found in their skins and cores – the very parts that are usually discarded in modern-day processing.

Fruit and vegetable fibres are 100% natural, low GI, gluten free, non allergenic, have a natural prebiotic effect and support a healthy blood sugar response – yet they are wasted as a by-product of the traditional juicing process.

Defugo takes these by-products and gives them new life; the biotech company’s patented technology captures the natural goodness that is usually lost through the processing of vegetables, fruit and other biomass and turns it into high-value functional foods that can be used to enrich processed products and boost their nutritional profile.

By processing fruit in its entirety, Defugo’s technology eliminates waste at every stage of the chain and creates powerhouse ingredients that can be added at low cost to enrich everyday products – from cereals and supplements to pet food, baby food, sauces and drinks.

A revolution in farming

This waste-free approach to creating healthy food will become increasingly important as we look for ways to nourish a growing global population – after all there is only so much land that we can use to grow the crops required to feed everyone.

‘The way we treat that land and the biomass it grows drastically needs to change if we are to avoid destroying the world in our attempts to feed it’, David explains. ‘We need to change our attitudes to the crops we grow and the types of food they produce.’

For David, our reliance on monocrops has created a nasty loop of bug infestation, disease and soil depletion; we add more insecticides, fungicides and fertiliser to counter the issues, and then only use a fraction of the crop grown.

‘In apples only around 70% of the fruit is used; in citrus the figure is 50% and it’s something like 10% for sugarcane’, David says. The huge volumes of waste come in an age when as many as 829 million people still go hungry.

David believes that the crops we choose to grow should be selected according to their ability to provide food and energy – and that we should look at the holistic value of a plant rather than processing food with a single result in mind.

‘At the moment we crush things, as we see that as the best way to extract the sugars or oils that we want’, David explains. ‘This crushing – of apples, citrus and sugarcane – not only leaves all of the fibres, minerals, vitamins and polyphenols in the waste, it also leaves behind many of the sugars we were originally looking to extract.’

When we crush something we push everything together – and the harder we push, the more difficult it becomes to separate the constituent parts. ‘We also destroy other elements with oxidation and contamination of the parts being pushed together’, David says. This approach not only limits the available food from a plant, it also eliminates the economic value of that plant.

‘This double whammy of lower yields and lower returns means that we have to grow much more just to equal what the original biomass would have provided us had it been treated holistically and processed for all of its value, not just one part’, David explains. ‘This becomes even more of a problem when the food that is extracted is turned into energy and not food.’

An American first

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30-40% of the US food supply – with a value of $161 billion annually – is lost as waste. This means wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is being sent to landfill; at the same time the land, water, labour and energy used to produce, process, transport, prepare and store that food is wasted, and even more energy is required for its disposal.

As part of the solution to this spiralling food waste crisis, in early 2023 Defugo will open a new Universal Processing Plant (UPP) in Yakima, Washington; the plant will process organic apples that American retailers have rejected for being too big, too small, too damaged or simply too ugly to sell.

In contrast to the cosmetic standards of supermarket quality controls, the UPP has been designed to make a more profound assessment of what it means to be an apple; it separates the fruit down into its various parts, creating a whole menu of possibilities that stretch far beyond the usual destinies of juices and purées.

Thanks to Defugo’s tech, the nutritious ingredients extracted from organic apples can be added to everything from non-dairy ice cream and bakery products to the meat binders in a burger patty.

‘The apple is the gift that keeps on giving’, David reveals. ‘The fibres are a known balancer of glycemic reaction, an incredible carrier of probiotics for gut health, while the flavonoids found in the skin support brain health. When you start to remove things like sugar from the fibres and add things like flavonoids, we can make them even more functional and use them in next-generation low-sugar, high-fibre baby foods or low-sugar juices that are so loaded with flavonoids that they pop with the bright colours of the fruit they came from.’

Slashing carbon and costs

Defugo has an environment-first approach; all its UPPs are powered by green energy and reuse water extracted from the plants and biomass they process in a world-first zero-waste process.

As each UPP is also able to take waste from other processors, there’s potential to make huge carbon savings.

The Yakima apple UPP is expected to handle a dizzying 30,000,000kg – 30,000 metric tonnes – of ‘waste’ apple per year. With every kg of food waste estimated to create 2.5kg of carbon, the UPP will prevent the release of 75,000,000kg of carbon into the atmosphere.

‘That’s in year one’, David reveals; ‘by year five the UPP’s target carbon reduction figure will be 250,000,000kg per year.’

By removing waste, slashing carbon and improving the nutritional value of a broad range of foods, Defugo’s technology also brings huge benefits to a company’s bottom line. The UN has estimated that for every $1 invested in food waste and loss reduction, companies save $14 in operating costs.

‘By increasing yield, monetising waste, reducing processing costs and removing waste costs, a company can make more money and save more money’, David explains. 

Due to the cost-effective nature of the process, the new UPP should also result in healthy, apple enriched foods becoming available to a large section of the American population.

Defugo’s whole-fruit approach will help to bring prices down and shatter the myth that a healthy diet costs more. 

Changing the food system

The growing global population is bringing the issue of food waste and healthy diets into sharp focus; as things stand, by 2027 the world will be short of 214 trillion calories.

Every year around a third of the food produced for human consumption – around 1.3 billion tonnes – is never eaten; 30% is lost on the farm, 10% is wasted at the distribution centre and 12% is lost at the supermarket.

David set up Defugo in a bid to help address the global crisis of how to create the nutrition required to feed 9 billion people by 2050. He had previously owned a supply chain technology company, where he saw first-hand the multiple issues in supply chain waste and discovered that many of the ingredients used were far from healthy.

‘Both issues came back to the way we were processing food’, he explains, ‘so I decided to see if there was a better way’.

An extended shelf life

Defugo has invested a lot of time and money in developing not only the technology to extract the food and the energy from the biomass, but also into research around the types of crop that will give the maximum yields when processed.

The company is able to process all fruit and vegetables, but focuses on citrus, apples and pears.

If we don’t process food and turn it into a form that can be stored for a period of time, it will rot – and refrigeration will only ever represent part of the solution.

By separating the biomass into its various parts – water, fibres and sugars – Defugo has created a way to store each separate ingredient in a very focused way, and thus ensure the longest shelf life possible.

‘This allows for the ingredients to be transported, stored or used in times when there isn’t so much food available’, David explains. ‘It’s a very simple concept, but unfortunately not one that’s put into practice that much – hence the global issues we have with food waste.’

Putting a price on waste

As well as presenting a solution to food waste, Defugo’s tech helps growers and farmers to improve profit by using imperfect produce.

Food processors are able to triple current revenues at higher levels of profit by increasing yield and turning waste into high-value functional foods.

Consumer product companies also get an opportunity to create products with higher fibre, lower sugar and more nutrients, which will help them to do their bit to address obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

This is a crucial point at a time when childhood obesity continues to be a national epidemic in the USA, where one in six young people is classed as obese.

All this is the result of tech that significantly reduces the environmental impact of food processing by eliminating waste and the use of chemicals, while reducing water, power and CO2 emissions.

It’s a win for everyone; we can’t wait to see the Yakima UPP in full swing – and perhaps even covered by Oprah.

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