Pass the Chitin, Please

Some day as you stroll down your local supermarket aisle you may spot a new breakfast cereal brightly labeled Chitin Enriched! “Now, where have I heard about this stuff?” you may ask yourself. Well, if you’ve been keeping up with your military hardware magazines you might have come across references to it in an article about deep penetration sonar, or if you subscribe to health or medical publications it may have been featured in an issue on new medications for treating burn victims.

Chitin, a chemical derived from the shells of lobsters, crabs, and crayfish [and potentially from insects] has been approved for use in cereals by the Japanese as a source of fiber and calcium. And, in combination with other chemicals, chitin derivatives turn into gels that can be used in sonar equipment to send signals farther.

But, chitin’s uses don’t stop there. When sprayed on apples, for example, it keeps them firm, tart, and juicy for more than eight months in cold storage, and when applied to burns promotes healing and stops the itching. And, if you mix it with whey, it makes a nutritious animal feed that produces leaner, meatier, tastier chickens. Most animals can’t break down the lactose that comprises 70% of this cheese byproduct, but chitin encourages the growth of bacteria in their digestive tracts which, in turn, produce enzymes enabling lactose to be metabolized. And if that isn’t enough, chitosan, another chitin derivative, keeps the body from absorbing fat and cholesterol.

(From Chemical Engineering Progress, Vol. 85, No. 1, p 10, January 1989. Thanks to Dr. Jim Davis, UW Department of Forestry, for bringing this article to our attention. See the November, 1989, Newsletter for more on chitin and chitosan.)