Published on 04/04/01

One Wood Chip or Two? New 'Sugar' Source

Would you like one or two wood chips in your coffee? How about a few cottonseed hulls to sweeten your cereal?

Sound ridiculous? A University of Georgia researcher says a large, untapped supply of a natural, high-valued sweetener lies hidden within Georgia's agriculture and timber industries. You just have to know how to get to it.

Sweeter Value

Jim Kastner, a biological and agricultural engineer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is working on a fermentation process to extract an alternative sweetener from common Georgia by-products.

The sweetener, xylitol, is a highly valued product that's growing in demand worldwide, Kastner said. It's used in chewing gums, pharmaceutical and dental hygiene products.

Using xylitol has many advantages, he said. And it's just as sweet as regular table sugar. "Not only is it sweet, but it generates a pleasant, cooling sensation in the mouth," he said.

Xylitol is better for you than regular sugar.

It doesn't cause cavities and actually fights the bacteria that causes cavities. It's safer for people with diabetes, too, because it doesn't cause an insulin response. It's also known to inhibit the growth of other bacteria, including the one that's the most common cause of ear infections in children.

Getting to the Value

"With the research, the overall goal is to develop specialty, value-added commodities from renewable carbon sources in the state," Kastner said. "Xylitol is one of these products."

Because Georgia has a large agriculture and timber industry, the state has a large supply of renewable carbon sources, such as cottonseed and soybean hulls and waste from the pulp and paper industry, he said.

For example, wastewater from the pulp and paper industry contains many fermentable carbon sources. One is called xylose.

Kastner's fermentation process uses microorganisms to feed on the xylose. As the microorganisms feed, they convert the xylose into xylitol.

"We're in the process of designing a new strain of microorganism to use in the process to give us higher yields," he said.

Kastner is now taking the research from the laboratory and placing it into real-life industry situations. He's working closely with a specialty pulp and paper company in Georgia to see how well his process will work at the plant.

The research has the potential to produce a range of products other than xylitol. One such product is Ribose, which is used to synthesize anti-cancer drugs.

"If we develop the technology to apply this to industry in Georgia," Kastner said, "the infrastructure will be established to further develop these other compounds."

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.