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Sugarcane and the future of sustainable farming

North QLD ingredient supply company KFSU has developed and successfully integrated a highly efficient form of processing sugarcane, as a way of both using the crop to its full potential and improving the general consumption of dietary fibre.

Based in Ayr, near Townsville, the company takes sugarcane in much the same way sugar mills normally would; they check the paddock satisfies food standards, take the unburned cane to their factory, shred the product and wash the sugar out.

But while traditional processing focuses on simply extracting the sugar, and burning the sugarcane’s fibrous extracts in the milling processes, KFSU uses 100% of the crop. The process dries and mills the fibrous extracts, turning the end product into the dietary retail product Kfibre and wholesale product Phytocel.

“We essentially take sugarcane from the field, remove the sugar in a chemical free process, which doesn’t heat the product past 40 degrees, retain all the bioactives, and then that’s the end product,” managing director Gordon Edwards said. “It’s a functional food ingredient.”

While the process came about from a desire to address the worldwide dietary fibre intake deficiency, by maintaining the sugarcane’s bioactives (components that possess biological activity) through the low-heat process, the product has delivered surprisingly positive health results, specifically for people suffering from acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.

The tasteless powder can be used in everything from sausages to muffins, and, amongst other wholesale clients, is being used by MediKane in their product “NutriKane,” a treatment for managing Blood Glucose Levels and intestinal health.

Edwards believes that by “putting back into the human diet what processing has taken out,” the final product overcomes the traditional problems associated with dietary supplements; notably, the removal of fibre extracts from plant material at the cost of natural minerals and vitamins.

“It’s like eating an orange versus a Vitamin C tablet,” Edwards said.

His journey begun in 2006, while selling shrimp and mango puree in Japan. It was there he and future founder Hajime Masaki were presented with original technology using Mill Bagasse and autoclaves, which uses heat steam and pressure to break products down for human consumption.

“We found that the whilst the idea was accepted by manufactures, the fact that there was no track and trace and the large amount of heat and autoclaves using steam was destroying a fair bit of the bioactive,” Edwards said. “So what we did was develop our very own diffusion process for the removal of the sugar, which doesn’t do any changes to the original form of the sugarcane.”

After launching KFSU in 2008, the company found support through both the federal and state governments, notably obtaining a $1.83 million Commercialisation Australia grant in 2013 and saving roughly $2 million through R&D tax concessions. Edwards puts much of their success to their funding of distributorship, arguing that the massive time lapse between development and sales can damage companies.

KFSU reportedly chose the Ayr location for its proximity to proactive sugarcane farmers, people who wanted change in the industry and saw KFSU’s “potential to value add through diversification”. Edwards says the farmers were attracted to the product’s status as a less commoditised and higher valued ingredient, valuing sugar at around $450 a tonne and Kfibre/Photocell at about $8000 a tonne.

But Edwards, who argued in a recent case study that the phrase Australian venture capitalists is an oxymoron, still found funding the business challenging, especially in relation to raising the product’s profile.

“We’ve spent nearly 9 years now and almost 12 million getting to where we are,” Edwards said. “The challenges have been trying to explain to an audience something which not too many people have a good idea of; most people, when they go into a shop or a grocery chain, don’t realise the amount of work behind it, they [just] understand it’s a food.”

“We’re a subset of that, we’re a health product, and to explain to customers and explain that to manufacturers has been an ongoing processes,” he said.

The company has made inroads in a number of different markets and countries but remains most strongly tied to its Australian and Japanese roots. On top of the aforementioned pharmaceutical and wholesale options, the product is being used in Japan by health patty company Lotteria for its ability to absorb moisture and maintain consistent mouth feel.

KFSU is currently focusing on its US and South American involvement, gearing up for Orange County’s annual health food trade show Natural Products Expo West in March. They will be assisted by their US distributor, Marigold, which traditionally works with sweeteners but are branching out.

Finally, Edwards lays much of the company’s success on their ability to network and utilise available resources.

“It’s been a bit of a journey, Edwards said. “It’s a world first what we’re doing.”

“Getting the message out there and expanding ourselves has been a bit of a journey, but we’ve just been fairly lucky,” he said, before reciting that, “old saying: the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.