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Natural Sweetener Could Be Sweet Deal

June 7, 2001

ALBANY, Ga. (AP) _ A natural sweetener used in chewing gum, toothpaste and pharmaceuticals may be pouring out of Georgia pulp mills in a few years.

Two University of Georgia scientists are studying the feasibility of making xylitol, a sweetener with anti-cavity properties, from wood fibers that are a byproduct of paper production.

Xylitol resembles table sugar and is equally sweet, but it has fewer calories. The sweetener sells for about 16 times the price of table sugar.

Finland, the world leader in xylitol production, makes the sweetener from the wood sugars found in birch trees. Scientists are hoping it also can be extracted from hardwood trees in the United States.

``There are no American manufacturers yet, but there’s lots of interest,″ said Jim Kastner, one of two chemical engineers working on the Georgia project. ``The United States has a large amount of wood-agriculture residue.″

Xylitol is found naturally in various fruits and vegetables, such as raspberries, strawberries and spinach, but the concentrations are too low for commercial extraction to be practical.

Kastner and fellow engineer Mark Eiteman hope to make it from the byproducts of paper production. They are conducting tests on two organisms _ yeast and a common bacteria _ that convert a wood sugar called xylose into xylitol.

The process is already being tested at one Georgia pulp plant. The scientists are working on genetically altering the yeast and bacteria to produce higher yields.

Tom Jeffries, director of the institute for microbial and biochemical technology at the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., said competing with Finnish xylitol producers will be difficult.

Faulty research linking xylitol to cancer is another obstacle, Jeffries said. Canadian researchers reported that rats who received high doses of xylitol developed cancer, but subsequent research showed the rats had developed kidney stones, not cancer, Jeffries said.

Xylitol is now approved for use in chewing gums, candies, pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.

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JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) _ Agriculture experts say army worms are on the march in some southern Wisconsin farm fields, and it could be the start of a big infestation.

The pests eat their way through fields and even lawns, consuming most everything in their path.

``That’s why they’re called army worms,″ said Dennis Nehring, the University of Wisconsin Extension agricultural agent for Rock County.

People have noticed large numbers of army worm moths in the southern half of Wisconsin in recent weeks, said Phil Pellitteri, UW Extension entomologist in Madison. The moths lay eggs, out of which the pests emerge.

``You always get a little leery of crying wolf,″ Pellitteri said, but there are signs that a major infestation could be in the works.

Nehring said he’s received isolated reports of what appear to be army worm moths, especially along the Illinois border. Farmers already are dealing with the problem in Illinois.

The army worm, a hairless, dark-green caterpillar, eats corn, soybeans and sometimes the grass in lawns and on golf courses.

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