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January 31, 2011
Volume 89, Number 5
p. 120

Too Much Tequila, How Chickens ‘Cross The Road’

Guillermo Toríz
No Más Tequila: Agave has new uses.
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Courtesy of YouTube
This YouTube video features "Tequila," the 1958 song by The Champs.
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Guillermo Toríz
This SEM image shows drug-delivery microspheres made from agave fructans; they resemble the spiky agave plant.

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The waxing and waning popularity of tequila has led to an overproduction of Agave tequilana, or blue agave, the fructose-loaded SPIKY PLANT used to make Mexico’s national drink. That’s turned out to be just fine for materials scientist Guillermo Toríz of the University of Guadalajara. At Pacifichem 2010, held in Honolulu in December, Toríz described some diversified nonalcoholic products made from agave sugars: high-fructose syrups used as sweeteners, biosurfactants, “prebiotics” used as food additives to promote growth of beneficial gut bacteria, and microparticles for controlled drug delivery.

In the early 1990s, tequila experienced a surge in popularity and sales jumped, Toríz says. Then in the late ’90s, diseases wiped out some of the agave crop, and it appeared that there would be a shortage. Enterprising farmers switched from corn and other crops to agave, which takes six to eight years to mature before harvesting. After a while, there was so much agave you couldn’t give it away to a chihuahua. The market price plunged from about $1.15 per kg to about 3 cents per kg, Toríz says.

Aided by government grants, Toríz and his Guadalajara colleagues began researching unspirited uses for agave so that farmers wouldn’t have to rip out their unharvested crops and start over with something else. Some of the scientists designed an enzymatic method for making fructose syrups. Toríz’ group, knowing that most of the sugar present in agave is in the form of β-1,2-fructan polysaccharides, which can’t be digested in the upper digestive tract of humans, began looking at other options.

In one application, the researchers are using esterified agave fructans to make drug delivery materials. So far, the team has created microparticles loaded with ibuprofen and vitamin E that selectively break down in the large intestine for targeted delivery. This tequila story is a good example of chemical ingenuity contributing to global sustainability, rather than a hangover.

Chicken: CO2 helps birds cross over.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. But to help chickens cross over the celestial highway—that is, to euphemistically cross the road for the last time—innovative food process engineering firms are developing “CONTROLLED ATMOSPHERE STUNNING” using carbon dioxide as a more humane way to knock out chickens before they are slaughtered.

Most people don’t consider how the chicken in their dinner gets from the farm to their plate. Workers at a processing plant unload the birds from crates, grab them by their feet, and hang them upside down in metal shackles on a conveyer system. The dangling chickens next pass through a vat of saltwater where a mild electric current stuns them into unconsciousness before they move forward to be killed.

Some 9 billion chickens per year in the U.S. go through this process, according to the National Chicken Council. But animal rights groups object.

In the new system, chickens in special containers first go into a chamber where the birds are gassed with CO2 until they pass out. Workers then hang the chickens on the conveyer before they are slaughtered. The chickens don’t spend the last few moments of their lives stressed out or injuring themselves, and workers don’t get stressed out by the stressed-out birds.

The CO2 process is viewed favorably by animal rights groups. A few chicken processors are starting to use the system, which likely will be adopted by the entire industry. Start looking for the “humanely processed” label.

Steven K . Ritter wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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