Research labs seek out added value from food waste

KosmodeHeath, CyberColloids and ECOR are exploring new frontiers in food.

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Among the presentations at this year’s TechInnovation conference, three research labs outlined their plans to turn food waste into high-value products in a session called ‘Trash to Treasure – Upcycling Food Side Streams.’

These pioneering startups, KosmodeHeath, CyberColloids and ECOR, are looking for new ways to integrate food into a circular economy, from nutrition to construction.

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals


More ways to source protein: KosmodeHealth

Research into alternative sources of protein is booming. These include novel foods based on microalgae and lab-grown meat as well as under-utilized options such as insects and pulses beyond soya beans.

Other storehouses of protein are worth looking at too, suggested food scientist Huang Dejian.

Huang was speaking on a session called ‘Trash to Treasure – Upcycling Food Streams’ at TechInnovation 2021, the technology showcase hosted by IPI, a collaboration platform supported by Enterprise Singapore.

Abundant macronutrients also exist in the byproducts created when making food and drink such as noodles, beer and cooking oil, Huang pointed out, usually when fats and starch are removed during the production process.

These byproducts mostly end up as animal feed or in landfill.

However, the hidden goodness locked inside can also be turned into healthy and sustainable food for human consumption.

“We call it waste,” Huang said. “That is a misnomer. It is a by-product rich in proteins and fiber.”

KosmodeHealth, a Singapore-based startup co-founded by Huang, is piloting a new technique to extract these proteins, as well as soluble and insoluble fibers, that’s less energy-intensive and more efficient than current practices.

These proteins and fibers can then be used as ingredients in food production.

“We call it waste. That is a misnomer.”

Kosmode’s first market test is a diabetic-friendly noodle brand called W0W. These zero-glycemic noodles, with no effect on blood sugar levels, incorporate fiber and proteins from spent barley grains that had been used to brew beer.

The middle character in W0W’s brand-name is a zero, rather than a capital O, to highlight the absence of cholesterol as well as starch. Early consumer trials gave the noodles a thumbs-up on taste and texture too.

“It is healthy and delicious,” Huang said. “That is the selling point for our noodles.”

Singapore alone generates 75,000 tons of spent barley grain every year, enough to produce around 10,500 tons of protein fiber powder, Huang noted.

That can make 650 million 100-gram servings of W0W noodles, representing 16% of Singapore’s annual food needs.

The company is still at the early stages of development, however. To scale up, and ultimately make the noodles more affordable, the startup may need to team up with a larger collaborator or supplier.

At the same time, Kosmode is also exploring how plant-based proteins and fiber from distillers’ grains can build more cost-efficient materials for cell-based meat and biomedical applications.

New formulae for bio-ink and new designs for biological scaffolds, both used in bio-printing to nurture complex cell structures, can optimize tissue growth, for example.

KosmodeHealth is a spin-off company from the National University of Singapore, where Huang is an assistant professor.

The company is initially testing its products in Singapore.

In time, Huang hopes to expand its footprint to other Asian markets that produce large amounts of spent grains, including the People’s Republic of China, Thailand and Vietnam.


Chemists think like chefs: CyberColloids

The potential value of fruit and vegetable waste is rising, thanks to new processing techniques that can expand fiber’s role in food production.

Irish research lab CyberColloids for example has been exploring the potential for fiber from apples in making cookies, from swedes in making mayo, from carrots in making burgers, and from potatoes in making muffins, and more.

Food waste is still food, emphasized CyberColloids business director Ross Campbell, speaking on the same session as KosmodeHealth at TechInnovation 2021.

Scientists should think more like cooks, he said, and become more creative in how leftovers can be used.

“I have been a stupid chemist most of my life,” Campbell remarked. “I extracted things and threw them away. Now one of my mantras is, stop thinking like a chemist, think like a chef.”

Food fiber has become almost ubiquitous in food production as a way to reduce fat and add texture, representing a ~US$7 billion global market today.

“Stop thinking like a chemist. Think like a chef.”

A breakthrough by a German lab 10 years ago discovered how to open up cellulose within citrus peel to create fiber with high water binding properties, a highly prized quality among food producers.

This innovation has allowed labs around the world to explore new uses and commercial possibilities for different kinds of fiber.

Before that, most food fiber was a gritty affair made from ground peas, oat or wheat fiber, limiting its use.

The main focus for CyberColloids is on simple processes that avoid unnecessary chemicals and waste. These include drying and milling methods that can break open cellulose and thus promote water binding.

The company’s researchers are also looking at different ways to activate fruit fibers known as pectins to become gelling agents, by changing the acidity level or by using enzymes – proteins that serve as natural catalysts – as a chemical trigger.

“We look at it two ways – physical, with a little bit of chemistry,” Campbell said. “Let us call it kitchen chemistry. We don’t want to use any nasty acids or chemical processes.”

Having shown proof of concept in the lab, CyberColloids is now looking for a partner, potentially a food supplier, to pilot its latest tech.

The company was set up 20 years ago by four ex-Unilever scientists, and has customers around the world, including in the People’s Republic of China and India within Asia.


Fiber as a building material: ECOR

Big companies are investigating other uses for left-over fiber too.

Last year, food giant Mars wooed chocolate lovers in the UK with an unusual retail display for its most popular candy, M&M’s.

Instead of cardboard panels, these new displays were made from cocao husks, traditionally discarded when making M&M’s, as well as recycled paper.

Meanwhile, thirsty travellers in Changi Airport can enjoy a drink in a bar where much of the décor, including the tables and stools, uses panels made from spent brewers grain. This watering hole, a branded bar for Tiger beer, is called Tiger Street Lab.

In both cases, bespoke recyclable panels were made by bonding together residual fibers using just water, heat and pressure.

The result is a sustainable alternative to wood, MDF, foamboard and cardboard for a range of applications, from furniture to exhibition stands.

This chemical-free process and product range, branded ECOR, has been developed by US firm Noble Environment Technologies with the Department of Agriculture.

The company runs factories in Serbia as well as the US. These are supported by an R&D center in the Netherlands, where ideas for new products are tested in collaboration with external designers.

Companies can scale up successful pilots to run their own production facilities using ECOR’s tech.

A polished product is more attractive to consumers than a simple panel, and strengthens partner buy-in too, noted Sann Carrière, ECOR’s project lead in Asia, the third speaker on the ‘Trash to Treasure’ session.

“That has been our Trojan horse to get accepted,” Carrière said.

A new workshop for mass production is set to open in the Netherlands by the end of the year.

“That has been our Trojan horse to get accepted.”

ECOR sources fiber from a number of areas, including corrugated cardboard, old news print, office waste and agriculture.

The company has teamed up with Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, for example, to create 100,000 square meters of panels every year from the grassland around the runways.

These grass verges are cut seven times a year to keep birds away from the planes, generating 5,000 tonnes of fibrous waste each time.

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Huang Dejian

Associate professor, National University of Singapore

Ross Campbell

Business director, CyberColloids

Sann Carrière

Project lead Asia, ECOR

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