Douglas L. Marshall

The increase in ethanol production, along with the corresponding decrease in the availability of traditional corn-derived ingredients, is a challenge facing many food companies. Byproducts of ethanol production (i.e., ethanol co-products) represent a nutritious and versatile source of ingredients for use in food processing and animal nutrition.

Gaining knowledge of the ethanol production process, the application of ethanol co-products in product development, and the relevant regulatory and quality assurance (QA) issues will help the food industry adapt to the significant changes affecting their ingredient supply. Going beyond the debate of food vs fuel (see March 2007 Food Technology, p. 124), co-products remain an untapped resource of viable human food ingredients.

In past years, there has been much application research to incorporate distillers grains in many different foods, but due to formulation issues and limitations on the amount of distillers grains produced, this commercialization as a food ingredient has been slow to materialize.

Recently, however, with higher energy prices and demand for renewable energy, there has been tremendous growth in the number of dry-mill fuel ethanol plants and production of distillers grains, mainly from corn. Despite the massive quantities of distillers grains available, the usage is primarily in animal feeds and not food. Production facility limitations, concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food formulation issues, and a lack of marketing and understanding of the food processing industry are all barriers.

But there are groups promoting the use of co-products. The Distillers Grains Technology Council has highlighted recent innovations in fuel ethanol plant designs and is considering the potential of producing co-products that have economical and nutritional value as potential food ingredients. Corn Value Products LLC, a joint partnership of AMG, Centrisys, and Quality Technology International (QTI), developed a new modified wet fractionation system. QTI markets products from this process.

Due to cost constraints, a majority of the built or planned ethanol plants are utilizing a system that sends the entire corn kernel into fermentation. The non-fermentable fraction remaining is typically dried and sold into the livestock markets as a lower value feed product.

A 40-million-gal, dry-grind ethanol plant was recently converted into a bio-refinery capable of making products such as corn bran and corn germ. What makes this system novel is that sulfur dioxide is not added to the process via the soak water, thus making this a unique process compared to traditional wet-milling.

In the near future, second generation, further-processed food products will be derived to bring additional benefits from this new emerging industry.

The ethanol co-products industry continues to expand and works to ensure that all ethanol co-products produced are utilized and consumed. For example, Poet produced about 523,000 tons of ethanol co-products in 2002 and is expecting volume to exceed 3.6 million tons in 2008. The expansion of ethanol co-product manufacturing and entrance into these different markets have increased the regulatory presence from state and federal agencies.

Co-products used for food or feed are subject to a number of legal and regulatory requirements, including: (1) good manufacturing practices (GMPs), (2) limits on contaminants such as aflatoxins and pesticides, (3) appropriate status as food additives or generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredients, including any processing aids used in production of the co-products, and (4) labeling requirements. For each of these areas, Hunton & Williams LLP has described the underpinning laws, regulations, and other issues that are of particular interest or concern to ethanol producers. Eurofins Scientific, Inc. has an integrated food safety systems management approach to ensure co-product safety, quality, and authenticity. Besides offering a broad range of analytical tests, Eurofins provides QA and process control consulting services for ethanol production facilities.

The ethanol industry is new and with any new industry comes growth, improvement, and evolution. Second-generation technologies will create better and more purified food product streams that may not exist today and possibly bring in quantities that will reduce costs if they do exist today (due to the sheer volume).

It is clear that despite the loud rhetoric proclaimed in the food vs fuel debate, there remains an underexploited potential to use ethanol co-products as value-added food ingredients. There is ample evidence that both food and fuel are exploitable outcomes of the drive toward alternative energy strategies, which can benefit farmers, processors, and consumers.

References for the above products and processes are available from the author.

Douglas L. Marshall, Ph.D., a Professional Member of IFT, is Associate Dean of the College of Natural and Health Sciences, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80639 ([email protected]).