Tobacco, for all its danger when smoked, could be a solution to some of the world's food problems, a University of Kentucky scientist suggests. Tobacco leaves are an excellent source of high-quality protein that could be made into a fat substitute in developed countries and a nutritional supplement in the Third World, said plant pathologist Shuh J. Sheen.

Sheen has developed methods for harvesting the proteins from tobacco. One, an enzyme important in photosynthesis, is clear, odorless and flavorless. Sheen said it could be added to soft drinks, sprayed onto rice to increase its nutritional value, or used in foods as a fat substitute, much as egg white and whey are now.

Sheen said the protein is superior to soy protein because it contains all 20 amino acids -- protein constituents needed by the body. He said leaves grown for protein can be picked when plants are young, allowing farmers to get three or four crops a season and to extract up to 750 pounds of high-quality protein per acre. After the food protein is extracted, much of the remaining material can be used as animal feed.

Sheen said he has received no funding from the government or from tobacco companies.