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Great gut flour - one business woman's crusade to turn waste into food

05 October 2018

Krista Watkins 2018 Agrifutures Winner

In a tiny Far North Queensland town with a population (as of the 2016 census) of 474 people, Krista Watkins (above) and her husband, Rob, grow bananas. The Watkins family grows Lady Fingers: the square looking banana, and not the more cylindrical Cavendish variety.

Most fresh food crops have a lot of waste. Bananas are no different. If the Watkins’ bananas are too curly, too straight, double banger, or misshapen or the fruit is in oversupply, it will be dumped to meet retailer and consumer demands.

According to Krista, that’s about five metric tonne dumped a week on her property alone. The Australian Banana Growers Council calculates the waste in North Queensland to be 500MT a week. That waste, including all the resources that have gone into growing the crop in the first place, is what Krista couldn’t stomach.

But what could be done with culled green Lady Fingers?

Only the local animal population - wallabies would wait patiently at the gate on Fridays for the Watkins’ green bananas to be dumped - saw any value in them.

“Wild pigs and cattle are also keen but not so patient and given a chance will push the palms over to get at the unripe fruit,” says Krista, who admits she should have guessed there was ‘something’ in the green bananas of value from the animals’ reactions.

About six years ago through a set of fortuitous circumstances Krista and her husband discovered what that ‘something’ was: green Lady Fingers are great for your gut.

On the day we catch up to discuss Krista’s nomination for an AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, she is in the midst of packing and distributing green banana by-products, including a healing ointment and the flour, to retailers. The company under which the products are marketed is called “Natural Evolution”.

“Green bananas have no sugar and are technically more a vegetable than a fruit,” Krista explains.

“Peeled, chopped, dried and pulverised, the banana produces a gluten-free flour which has a very high level of resistant starch. Resistant starch is fantastic for gut health,” she goes on to reveal.

(In combination with the fibre in the fruit the flour is also being researched for its effectiveness in reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes and colon cancer in people.)

Krista also has a “new baby” - flour from gold sweet potatoes. This gluten-free flour is set to launch nationally in October and a large supermarket chain is negotiating to put the flour on its shelves.

It’s this innovative work developing diversified markets for fresh produce, and solving waste to create more sustainable food production, that has marked Krista for inclusion in the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Awards.

Gold sweet potatoes suffer a similar fate to bananas. If the sweet potatoes are too big, not the right look or if the crop is overly abundant, it’s ploughed back into the soil. Seventy percent of Australia’s gold sweet potatoes are grown in Queensland and about 50 metric tonnes per acre are wasted.

According to Krista, a major issue for fresh food producers is the fact they are generally locked into the one line of sales – fresh produce - and their produce, by its very nature, has a short shelf life.

“A gold sweet potato has maybe three months from harvest to bin and a banana, three weeks,” says Krista.

The Watkins’ development of technology to create flour from the discarded bananas - and now sweet potato - allows that fresh produce to enter the market in another form, and, as Krista points out, “the flour has a shelf life of three plus years”.

“The time and effort that went into perfecting and commercialising the green banana flour process – five or six years of hard work, including a lot of experimenting, along with significant time and financial investment – gave us the know-how for dealing with gold sweet potato. In fact, creating flour from sweet potatoes took about 30 minutes,” says Krista, who’s also looking at the potential to value-add to other crops, such as mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, beetroot and some fruits.

In amongst all this innovation have come other unexpected, happy surprises for Krista.

“The way the Australian public, not just customers, but the health and well-being industries and scientific community have embraced what we do at Natural Evolution - that was an unexpected outcome. Those communities heard about what we were doing and they got on board and supported us from the beginning,” finishes Krista.


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