Americans eat a million tons of tortilla chips per year. But as we crunch our snack foods, few of us ever realize their water cost. Million tons of chips have a water footprint of 180 billion gallons.
Josh Death, founder of Kazoo Snacks, wants people to enjoy a chip while not decimating Earth’s water supply. His new, water-saving tortilla chip brand upcycles corn germ to save 20 gallons of water per bag of chips. Death talked to Inhabitat about why chips require so much water and how he hopes to change American snacking.
Inhabitat: How did you find out that traditional chip-making processes use so much water?
Death: I can see how some might assume that it’s the chip production that’s water-intensive, but the abundant water-use actually takes place before the corn is even in the hands of manufacturers.
Tortilla chips are made using large quantities of corn, and growing that corn requires water. Lots of water. Growing just one pound of corn requires 110 gallons of freshwater. In 2020, for example, the U.S. consumed 1 million tons of tortilla chips. To grow enough corn to meet this demand for one year’s worth of consumption, it would take 180 billion gallons of water.
Very few of us are aware of the demand our food consumption places on our agricultural systems, but this is why sustainable agriculture, combined with eco-friendly manufacturing, is so important. At Kazoo, we’re able to save water by using upcycled corn germ, which just so happens to be the most nutrient-dense part of the corn kernel. This allows us to make a tortilla chip that uses less corn and less water, without compromising taste.
Inhabitat: How did you get into the chip business?
Death: I’m an intellectual property lawyer and have worked in the pharmaceutical and banking industry for 20 plus years; but at my core, I have always been somewhat of a frustrated entrepreneur who truly wants to make a difference.
Several years ago, I helped co-develop the non-toxic disinfectant Cleanwell and Benefect. I entered the chip industry by a confluence of three factors: a desire for a new business opportunity, an internal calling to create a snack that was better for the Earth and an inclination to create a better snack for people that doubly served as a leading example of how food manufacturers can conserve water and waste less. I experimented with several ideas before finding promise of all three factors in Kazoo.
Inhabitat: Tell us about developing the water-saving process.
Death: The water saving aspect comes from sourcing corn germ for our chips, which is a by-product of the corn starch industry. Ironically, the difficulties we faced with the development of Kazoo was related to the corn germ. Namely, getting a large amount of corn germ into a tortilla chip that tasted great and was workable in a typical tortilla chip plant.
I worked with three different labs over about three years to get a workable product on the bench, and then about another year sourcing a co-packer who could work with our revised process and scale up the bench samples. The last lab I worked with was with the top corn scientist in the world. They were keen to work with me because no one had ever accomplished what I was aiming to achieve.
My co-packer has been amazing as well. Scaling up from the bench to full commercial production exposed numerous other challenges that needed to be overcome. I faced a number of obstacles, as many leading food scientists and manufacturers didn’t believe producing a chip using 40% upcycled corn germ and only 60% fresh corn was possible — but we did it.
And our water savings claims aren’t just fluff. We went the extra mile of having our calculations vetted and validated by former FDA food lawyers. We also presented our claims to the U.S. Water Council, who called Kazoo “a unicorn.”
Today, we are the only 100% sustainable tortilla chip on the market, and the only brand to present its water-saving claims on its packaging. We do this because we believe consumers have a desire to eat more sustainably, but just need a heads up about what’s actually sustainable as they’re in the store shopping. Placing our water savings claims front and center on our packaging will hopefully allow consumers to choose the more sustainable option.
Inhabitat: Do you know of other products that require surprising amounts of water to produce?
Death: All corn products require a substantial amount of water to grow the corn. In 2020, approximately one million tons of tortilla chips were consumed in the U.S. Assuming all U.S. corn was used (likely) that would have required about 180 billion gallons of fresh water. If our process had been used to process the same amount of corn, we could save 58 billion gallons of water per year.
We’re only a few short years away from facing a global water crisis. It’s also been documented that things like coffee, meat, rice and wheat all take a substantial amount of water to grow.
It’s interesting, because just about every CPG brand needs water to manufacture their product. And if you look at the data, it’s clear that the food industry is partially responsible for the state of our water crisis, as it regularly uses 70% of the world’s waters.
It’s a great and humbling feeling to be among the few brands being progressive about this issue, and the only brand on the market to be focused exclusively on water conservation, without compromising taste.
It isn’t commonplace for any of us to think about water-waste while snacking on our favorite foods, but we’re hoping to change that with Kazoo.
Inhabitat: How did you come up with the name Kazoo Snacks?
Death: Environmental sustainability is a challenging issue that has polarized people and some of the best-known advocates are quite divisive. I wanted a brand that was innocent, fun and brought back fond carefree memories to people – making music on the kazoo when you were a kid – it didn’t matter your musical talent, you could play the kazoo and sound great.
Inhabitat: What else should readers know about Kazoo Snacks?
Death: That we’re trying. There are a lot of things we want to accomplish, but it’s a journey. We want more sustainable packaging but that’s a massive industry challenge, and we’ll move with the leaders as new materials become available.
We’d like to offer consumers organic tortilla chips, but our goal is to reduce waste by making use of corn germ that would typically go to waste streams or animal feed – which is mindboggling because it’s the most nutrient-dense part of corn. As more mainstream brands switch to organic corn, there will be more organic corn germ to use in our products. As that happens, we’ll be sure to make the switch.
We’d also like consumers to know that we need your support. Grocery chains and other distributors recognize sustainability is a trend, but they don’t know how it will play out and if it will be good business. As such, we need customers to support products like Kazoo so that we can become more recognized in the public eye like “organic” food was. Our goal is to save one billion gallons of water by 2025.
Sustainability is not just a trend. It is a lifestyle forward to a better future. Together we can move the needle.
Images via Teresa Bergen and Pexels