Javier Larragoiti was 18 years old when his father was diagnosed with diabetes. The teenager had just started a degree in chemical engineering in Mexico City. So he dedicated his studies to a side project: creating an acceptable alternative to help his father and millions of Mexicans like him avoid sugar.
"It's only when you meet someone with this disease that you realize how common it is and how sugar intake plays a huge role," he says. "My father tried to use stevia and sucralose, he just hated the taste and kept cheating his diet."
The young chemist began dabbling in xylitol, a sweet-tasting alcohol commonly extracted from birch wood and used in products like chewing gum.
"It has so many good properties for human health and the same taste as sugar, but the problem was that it was very expensive to produce," he says. "So I decided to start working on a cheaper process to make it accessible to everyone."
Ten years later, Larragoiti has patented a fermentation-based process to convert wasted ears of corn from Mexico's 27.5-million-ton annual harvest into xylitol. So you're solving a second problem: what to do with all the agricultural waste that could otherwise be burned, adding greenhouse gases to the supercharged atmosphere.
His business, Xilinat (pronounced Hill-Ee-Natt), buys waste from 13 local farmers, producing a ton of the product annually. This month, his invention received a prestigious Chivas Venture award of $ 310,000, which will allow him to industrialize production and expand it by ten.
Obesity is one of the fastest growing global health problems. One in seven people is obese, and about 10% have type 2 diabetes. Since 1980, the obesity rate has doubled in more than 70 countries.
Larragoiti says sugary diets are a real problem in a Coca-Cola-loving Mexico, which has the second highest rate of obesity in the world and has successfully taxed sugary drinks to try to combat a major source of the problem.
Paradoxically, another by-product of corn, fructose, is part of the problem, used to make corn syrup that has been linked to the rise in obesity in the US.
"It's a bit ironic," says Larragoiti. “High fructose corn syrup is just a concentrated sugar and carb pump that produces a high insulin spike. It is many times sweeter than regular glucose. Companies use and pay less and that is the problem. "
The reuse of agricultural waste is fast becoming a promising sector for social entrepreneurs interested in tackling global warming and doing useful things at the same time.
“A corn stalk has 70% to 80% waste by weight when you get to it,” says Stefan Mühlbauer of Cormo USA Inc. His company has a pilot plant in Alsace, France, and is building another in Indiana. United States, to convert corn waste into a peat substitute and super absorbent foam for filters or soil. "Farmers are excited because it gives them something that extends their harvest season and they see another source of income," he adds.
In Mexico, agricultural waste is often burned, releasing greenhouse gases and creating one of the highest sources of dioxin emissions in the country. "Burning the residue is cheap and fast and can eliminate pests and diseases," says Dr. Wolter Elbersen, a crop production expert at Wageningen University and Research. “Apparently, the downsides, such as air pollution, loss of organic matter and nutrients, are less appreciated. "Removing material for food or compost, or value-added products like paper pulp or fuels is often not profitable, or there is no manpower available to do all the work in a short period of time."
But thinking differently about "waste products" is essential if we are to conserve scarce resources and feed a growing population, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We have to think back to the principles of the past, where we had to do a lot with little, and at the same time apply the technology we have today to be successful in the challenge of feeding the world,” says Clementine Schouteden, who leads the initiative. global on the circular economy of food in the campaign organization.
“There is definitely a sense of urgency to make sure we grow in a way that is regenerative, avoiding waste but also [creating value from] waste that is currently inedible, with a food industry making the right choices for consumers and for the planet. "
The Xilinat idea has enormous potential, according to Sonal Shah, the founding executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and a Chivas Venture judge. "It's not just that you're building a sugar substitute that tastes like sugar, it's going to become scalable, so every company that uses sugar in their food will have an opportunity to rethink what type of substitute they use," he said.
However, Ebersen added that "you need a solution to use the leftovers after extracting the xylose and the demand for xylitol is small [currently] compared to the amount of waste."
Meanwhile, what about Javier's father? "My dad is super happy," says Larragoiti. "He uses my product every day and is willing not to cheat his diet anymore!"
• Readers have noted that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs and even small amounts can be fatal. Use with care