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Munchies

Scientists Have Figured Out How to Get Almost Infinite Flavor from One Grapefruit

An aromatic compound from grapefruit has tons of applications, from flavoring to insect repellant, and now we can get gallons and gallons from just a single piece of fruit.

by Hilary Pollack
Apr 15 2015, 10:30pm

Photo via Flickr user liz west

Squeeze a particularly ripe lemon half, and a surprisingly generous amount of juice will trickle out. Ditto half a Ruby Red when placed into a juice press. Mmm, juicy.

But collecting nootkatone is another story.

Nootkatone (yes, the name's a bit strange) is an aromatic compound found in grapefruit, used in a variety of applications such as flavorings, cosmetics, essential oils, and even all-natural insect repellants. Richard Burlingame, PhD, who presented a report on nootkatone's uses at the 2013 National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, described it thusly: "Nootkatone is a broad-spectrum ingredient that has been shown to be effective as a control agent for mosquitoes, ticks and bedbugs. Nootkatone has been used for years to give beverages a grapefruit flavor. It is safe to eat, has a pleasant citrus flavor, is not greasy, both repels and kills insects, and should not have the toxicity concerns that exist for DEET." OMG, what's not to love about nootkatone?!

Well, it's also exorbitantly expensive, generally costing a whopping $4,000 per kilogram. And even worse, only tiny amounts in it are found in each individual grapefruit. This has presented an issue for the thousands of companies who want to use it in their products. But there's good news for the grapefruit-lovers.

Researchers at the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology have found a new way to replicate nootkatone using cheap sugar and yeast. Basically, they used genome mapping to modify the genetic profile of a yeast called Pichia pastoris, enabling it to synthesize sugar into our beloved aromatic compound, and for virtually no moola. Plus, it's an environmentally friendly process with few significant by-products, and millions of gallons of nootkatone can be made from the oils of a single grapefruit. It's basically magic, like when that dude in the park just keeps pulling that crazy multicolored scarf out of his hat indefinitely.

Scientists are hoping that in addition to its uses in flavorings and scents, nootkatone's effects as an insect repellant could help to eradicate malaria outbreaks in developing countries. That's a seriously sweet way to juice a grapefruit.

Now go celebrate the proper way: with a bowl of Grapefruit and Beer Punch. And don't forget to say cheers to science.