Wood isn't just a building material anymore, not if one Virginia Tech professor has anything to say about it. Percival Zhang got the idea for transforming wood — along with other woody bushes and grasses — into food after growing up in China, where the food supply is a constant concern given the country's large population, reports NPR.
Yes, you read that right: wood. As food. While chomping down on a 2x4 may not sound very appetizing, let alone safe (think of the splinters!), Zhang has a recipe that may change your mind. He has identified a soup of enzymes that can break down the indigestible cellulose from wood and other plant materials and turn it into a carbohydrate called amylose. The resulting product from Zhang's process is a sweet, starchy powder that can be consumed.
If wood, bushes and grasses could be transformed into food, it would be nothing short of a food revolution. Cellulose is the structural component of green plants and algae. Though it contains glucose, a vital carbohydrate, the human digestive system is not capable of breaking it down, which is one of the main reasons we can't normally eat wood. If we could, though, our food supply would increase exponentially: cellulose happens to be the most abundant organic polymer on Earth.
"Wood, bushes, grasses ... there's more than 100 times more of this nonfood biomass than the starch we currently grow as food," said Zhang.
If we could digest cellulose, just about any plant material could be used as food. Zhang's technology has the power to radically transform our agricultural system, making it far more environmentally viable.
The starchy byproduct of Zhang's synthetic process resembles other complex carbohydrates like corn starch, which is healthier than if the cellulose was merely reduced to a sugar.
"We need a slow-metabolized sugar like starch so that humans can keep blood glucose levels nearly constant," he said.
The idea has such promise that NASA is interested in developing it as a food source for astronauts on long-term missions. But it has comfortable application in Earth-bound foods, too. Zhang said his powder could be a substitute for bread crumbs for frying chicken, for instance.
The only thing currently keeping these wood-derived products from hitting supermarket shelves is the cost. Though cellulose is abundant, the enzymes required for breaking it down using Zhang's process are not. But those costs could come down over time, especially as the process becomes more efficient and more economically viable.
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