The U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced countless innovations: frozen orange juice concentrate, permanent-press clothing, 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.
In 2013, the USDA filed for 147 patents and received another 51. Here are some 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-wine 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 by 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: 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 and prevents affected fruit 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 hand-held device can detect West Nile virus — a mosquito-borne infection that can be life-threatening — 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 funding will help the agency build on its progress with scientific breakthroughs.