As reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan ranks No. 1 as a producer of tart cherries and No. 4 as a producer of sweet cherries in the United States, with 94,500 and 21,300 tons respectively produced in 2017. However, the industrial production of cherry-based foods can be extremely wasteful. Depending on the process used, cherry pomace (skin and flesh) can comprise approximately 28% of the initial fruit, and the cherry pit accounts for up to 15% of the whole fruit. Most of these by-products are ultimately wasted, although some of them are used for animal feed, fuel or preparation of activated carbons.

Food waste is by no means limited to the cherry industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that in 2017, more than 126 million metric tons of food were wasted across the food supply chain in the United States alone.

A caveat for cherry by-products — like pomace, tar and pits — is that these residual substances happen to be rich in valuable intracellular compounds, such as polyphenols with antioxidant properties. Considering that the global antioxidants market is projected to reach $4.5 billion by 2022, an industry growth fueled by the rising application of antioxidants in cosmetics and other skincare products, cherry waste boasts real economic benefits.

And researchers from Michigan State University are on the sweet end of the deal.

Bahar Aliakbarian, research leader at the Axia Institute and fixed-term faculty in the Broad College’s supply chain management department

Bahar Aliakbarian, research leader at the Axia Institute and fixed-term faculty in the Broad College’s supply chain management department, was recently awarded a grant from the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization program to uncover ways to capitalize on cherry waste, in collaboration with researchers from MSU’s Department of Forestry.

The research team is working to not only reduce the amount of cherry biomass that ends up in landfills but also uncover ways to generate revenue from this waste. Once recovered and processed, the cherry by-products, still rich in nutrients, represent an extremely viable but untapped solution for minimizing environmental impact and expanding Michigan’s cherry revenue.

At the national level, the aim of this project, titled “Creating Incremental Revenue From Industrial Cherry Wastes,” aligns well with the USDA goals of reducing food waste (50% by 2030) and improving food safety. The outcome of the research project is a powder that is rich in bioactive compounds with enhanced bioavailability, water solubility and stability compared to synthetic and non-encapsulated antioxidants. The application of these natural high-value-added materials is broad and could include use as pharmaceuticals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, active packaging with antibacterial properties and anti-aging cosmetic formulation ingredients. Other opportunities include food integrators with antioxidant benefits.

Importantly, the biorefinery platform upon which this research is based can be extended to by-products from other foods, such as apples, berries, grapes, olives and corn, each of which produces biomass with rich nutrient by-products. The use of these techniques to repurpose waste in other areas has the potential to yield even greater economic and social benefits.

This MSU research project addresses the triple bottom line by reducing environmental impacts and cutting waste, increasing revenue and profits for Michigan’s cherry industry and providing social and health benefits through the use of antioxidants.

Additional details on this research, as well as the other research projects in Axia’s portfolio, are available at the Axia Institute website.