Top USDA discoveries of 2013, including weight-loss flour

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims to have fostered countless innovations in its time, from frozen orange juice concentrate and permanent-press clothing to mass-produced penicillin and almost all breeds of blueberries and cranberries in production today.

Each year, the agency issues its dryly named “Report on Technology Transfers,” which outlines scientific breakthroughs that came about through USDA research, largely conducted with help from outside organizations such as universities and small businesses.


(Diego Giudice/Bloomberg)

The USDA filed for 147 patents and received another 51 last year. Below is a list of the more interesting breakthroughs that came from the department’s work:

* Weight-loss flour: A new type of flour made of chardonnay grape seeds may prevent weight gain and high cholesterol, according to the USDA. Testing showed changes in fat metabolism for hamsters that ate the product along with a high-fat diet. The Mayo Clinic is conducting human trials on it now.

Can the department develop flour for people who prefer reds? No such luck. Red grapes don’t have the same effect, according to the report.

* Fertilizer from tires:  Tires contain zinc, which means the ground-up rubber from used tires can be used to fertilize zinc-deficient soils. Zinc is an essential nutrient required for growth with many crops.

Research has also shown that zinc helps reduce cadmium levels in grain. Cadmium is a toxic metal that shows up naturally in soil and ends up in foods such as cereal and vegetables. Add a little tire-rubber to your dirt, and you may end up with crops that are healthier for consumption.

Oat concentrate for ice cream and other creamy delights: Oat carbohydrates can be turned into a creamy substance. Most of us know that from eating oatmeal, but studies have shown that oat concentrate can be used to develop new and perhaps healthier varieties of yogurt, instant puddings, custard, batter, smoothies, and ice cream, according to the USDA.

* Vapor packets that fight fruit decay: The packets release antimicrobial vapor to keep fruit from spoiling. The product also treats citrus canker, a disease that causes lesions on citrus fruit and prevents it from being marketed internationally.

The USDA is testing the vapor packets in pilot studies with commercial packing houses. The product could save the international fresh-produce industry more than $1 billion annually, according to the report.

Maybe now the department can develop vapor packets that fight tooth decay. Might be great for our chompers, but you have to wonder about breath. 

* Gold particles that detect West Nile virus:  The USDA discovered that a handheld device can detect West Nile virus — a mosquito-borne infection that can be life threatening, especially when it causes the brain to swell — with help from gold nanoparticles.

According to the USDA, gold nanoparticles have the ability to scatter and absorb light, making them ideal for detecting virus-infected cells with a spectrometer.

The 2014 farm bill, which Congress passed in February after three years of talks, provides $200 million to establish a new USDA Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. The USDA said that program will help the agency build on its progress with scientific breakthroughs.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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