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Secretary’s Column: USDA Science You Can See

While most people have a mental image of research that involves scientists in lab coats, bubbling test tubes and beakers, and technical language that can seem complex, much of the groundbreaking research conducted by USDA scientists actually ends up on your plate, in your home, or on your back. Their discoveries in the lab truly translate into science you can see.

For example, many of us make a conscious effort to eat healthier and cut calories, but it can be tough when faced with a favorite snack, like French fries. USDA scientists have figured out a way to make French fries healthier. Before frying, scientists exposed potato strips to a few minutes of infrared heat. This forms a crispy outer shell on the outside of the fries, which helps to reduce their oil uptake and ultimately reduces calories per serving. If adopted commercially, this method is great news for both food processors and our waistlines.

Or maybe you’re a healthy snack lover and looking for a way to make your snacks pack an even healthier punch. USDA scientists have found a way to add oat fiber to yogurt without affecting its flavor or texture. Yogurt is already a pretty healthy snack, and adding addition fiber can only help—studies have indicated that oat fiber can help to improve heart health.

If you are lactose-intolerant, you may use Lactaid™ so you can still enjoy dairy products. USDA scientists helped to develop the basis for that product, too. USDA scientists also conducted the core research behind ChoiceBatter, a gluten-free rice flour batter that is now being marketed and sold by CrispTek, LLC.

For those who’ve ever woken up late before a big work meeting, USDA scientists have got your back here, too. They helped to develop cotton fabric that is wrinkle-free and fire-resistant.

If you’re a cat person, you may someday see USDA science impact your pet. USDA scientists have developed a kitty litter product that’s nearly 100 percent biodegradable and made from spent grains, often referred to as dried distiller’s grains (DDGs), leftover from the process of making corn ethanol. DDGs are often used as cattle feed, but this new product may provide a higher-value market for the tons of DDGs leftover after ethanol production.

And, to the delight of farmers and people with noses everywhere, USDA scientists are part of a team of researchers investigating ways to combat the brown marmorated stink bug, which in addition to having a distinct odor, can also cause serious damage to valuable agricultural crops.

These are just some of the ways that research conducted by USDA scientists and our partner research institutions touch your daily life. Beyond that, agricultural research also helps to boost the economy. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research returns $20 to the economy. In the past five years alone, research by USDA scientists has led to award of 215 patents covering a wide range of topics and discoveries. One of our research agencies, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), currently has 380 active licenses of ARS-developed technology that are supporting new businesses and job opportunities across the country.

The recently-signed 2014 Farm Bill will help to build on these accomplishments by establishing a new research foundation that leverages private sector funding to support groundbreaking agricultural research. You can follow our progress in implementing the new farm bill and establishing the research foundation at www.usda.gov/farmbill.

Thanks to the new Farm Bill, we can continue the vital research and innovation that have enhanced food safety and nutrition, made farming and ranching more efficient, and improved quality of life for millions of people in the United States and around the world.

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