Testing the potential of distilling as an alternative use for DON-contaminated wheat

Final report for GNC22-360

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,764.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Matthew Stasiewicz
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Project Information


The mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON), caused by Fusarium Head Blight, is a barrier to North-Central Region (NCR) grain production.  Farmers testify to, and state survey data shows, frequent DON contamination above FDA advisory levels for human food. We built a team with the Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC) to assist the rising number of small and mid-size grain grower and miller stakeholders across our region with managing food safety issues in a cost-effective manner, particularly in situations in which they already have high DON in grain at harvest.

We explored distilling, an understudied option, as a high-value alternative use for DON-contaminated rye and wheat. With cooperation from NCR farmers, we procured rye and wheat samples that had tested high for DON, conducted distillation, and traced DON segregates by Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) kit. This work took place in the University of Illinois Food Science & Human Nutrition Pilot Processing Plant (IBRL) using their distillation and other equipment. 

The results showed that distilled liquor from DON-contaminated rye and wheat contains very low DON levels at most. From a food safety perspective, considering DON-contaminated grain as an ingredient for distilled spirits appears viable. The outcomes of this research are important for NCR farmers because, collectively, this work assists growers in overcoming a major food safety barrier to high-value rye and wheat production and opens a new potential market for wheat.

Project Objectives:

Learning outcomes

We showed the distilling flow diagram and parameters to farmers and distillers. This introduced the distilling work to those who might not be familiar with distilling. In addition, we shared the data with AGC stakeholders through a poster. We hope we can help small grain growers reduce their concerns about the risks of growing and processing small grains for food-grade markets. We expect growers to be more confident in producing small grains. The distillers could have a conception about where DON goes during processing, and better understand if and how to prepare for working with grain that has above 1ppm DON.   

Action outcomes

One clear outcome is the ability of the University of Illinois IBRL-AGC partnership to provide clear and accurate guidance to farmers, millers, and distillers about whether  DON-contaminated grain can be safely used in distillation, thus impacting farmer, miller, and distiller decision-making in selling and using these grains.


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  • Alyssa Hartman


Materials and methods:

Naturally DON-contaminated rye and wheat were used in two pilot-scale distillation runs involving milling, mashing, fermentation, and distillation. The ground grain, porridge, fermented mash, and post-distillation mash were sampled during process. For the distilled spirit, 29 fractionated samples, each containing 125 ml, were collected starting with the first drop of liquor. The fractionated samples were sequentially combined into 6 pooled samples of up to 5 individual fractions. If a pooled sample had a DON level above the limit of quantification, samples of the pool were tested individually. All samples were tested by ELISA with a limit of quantification at 0.05 ppm and a limit of detection at 0.01 ppm.

Research results and discussion:

For both rye and wheat runs, DON levels in all distillate fractions were consistently below the FDA advisory level (1 ppm), reducing from barely quantifiable to below 0.01 ppm. The DON levels in ground rye and wheat were 3.62 and 2.69 ppm, respectively. In the rye distilled spirit, the first pooled sample had a DON level of 0.1 ppm, and the first two fractions of that pool had DON levels of 0.1 and 0.06 ppm. In the wheat distilled spirit, the first pooled sample had a DON level of 0.05 ppm, and the first fraction of that pool had DON level of 0.12 ppm. All other distilled spirits had DON levels below 0.01 ppm.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers participated
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

(1) We took a video to show how we did the distillation run in the pilot plant as an educational tool. https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/t/1_pt9qh6l3  

(2) We shared our results with Artisan Grain Collaborative through a poster. SARE poster

(3) We presented both a poster and an oral presentation at the NC-213 conference on "Marketing and Delivery of Quality Grains and BioProcess Coproducts." SARE poster

(4) In addition, we submitted an abstract to the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). If accepted, we plan to present our results as a poster in Long Beach, CA, in July.

(5) Currently, we are in the process of preparing a journal article for publication.

Project Outcomes

3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Economic: prevent the loss of both partial and full wheat crop value due to food safety contamination.

Environmental: capture resources that would otherwise be lost due to food safety concerns, through converting grain to safe alternative profitable uses.

Social: Distilling for contaminated grain, as explored in this project, will support a diversified rural economy with opportunities for value addition and market differentiation

Knowledge Gained:

(1) Communication Skills: I developed effective communication skills for interacting with farmers to gather rye/wheat samples and to keep them informed about the progress of the research project, as they are actively involved participants.

(2) Pilot-Scale Food Processing Techniques: I gained knowledge of distillation principles and practical skills by actively participating in the entire distillation process.

(3) Laboratory Skills: I acquired proficiency in utilizing the ELISA kit to detect mycotoxins present in both rye/wheat samples and distilled spirits.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.