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Researchers are finding innovative ways to recycle discarded food waste to create prebiotics.

0 2 years ago

By Sarah Griffiths

Food waste is a problem of supersized proportions. One third of the food we grow – 1.3 billion tons – is wasted. Not only is this shameful when 690 million people go to bed hungry every night, but it also produces an estimated 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Turning our noses up at leftovers is part of the problem. The priority is to minimize waste, by eating wonky veg, for example, or redistributing surplus food to hungry people, or animals if it is of lesser quality.

But the bulk of wasted food doesn’t even reach our plates. Some food is inedible because it has gone off, become contaminated, or is an inedible by-product of the food industry such as onion skins. These products are then either recycled for fertilizer, burned for energy, or simply go to landfill. But thankfully, there’s appetite for a new solution to address food waste: recycling that retains the value of food molecules so they can still provide nourishment.

Engineers and scientists are working on a new way to extract target carbohydrates needed to make prebiotics; a group of non-digestible nutrients – mostly carbohydrates – that are resistant to the acidic conditions found in the human gut and boost the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Numerous types of these non-digestible carbohydrates are found naturally in fruit and vegetables, such as bananas, apples, asparagus, beans and chickpeas, and even human milk, which is known to be rich in a simple sugar called prebiotic oligosaccharides. This prebiotic has been shown to promote a specific group of beneficial gut microorganisms called bifidobacteria.

Studies show that consuming prebiotics can boost digestive health by improving the absorption of micronutrients such as calcium and supporting the immune system by increasing the number of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut as well as decreasing harmful bacteria. The growth of healthy bacteria that use prebiotics as their source of energy also leads to the production of small molecules called short-chain fatty acids, which enter blood circulation and benefit the immune, cardiovascular, and central nervous system. So, there are lots of benefits to prebiotics.

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