Coupled with a food waste prevention focus, the innovative and rapidly growing concept of “upcycling” — pioneered by Jonathan Deutsch at the Drexel Food Lab — can be a pivotal driver for changing the developed world’s wasteful culture of abundance regarding food in the most basic way: by re-orienting us to properly value our food and all of the resources that went into the production and distribution efforts involved in bringing it to us.
We need this mindset shift desperately to create a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable food system — one that is regenerative versus destructive to people and planet (as covered in numerous recent reports from UN FAO and others) — and one that will accelerate progress toward all of the Sustainable Development Goals due to the tight linkages between the food system and hunger, nutrition, climate, water, soils, oceans, and biodiversity.
Upcycling leads us to think differently about excess food in our production operations — not as “food waste” to be callously squandered (in fact, sent to landfill where it does even more harm) but as “food resources” to be converted into new value-added products.
The concept can (and should) lead producers to re-examine current “waste” streams — long unchallenged due to ease of cheap disposal and disregard for externalities — and revise their operating mindset to one of “byproducts” which can be put to productive use with triple bottom line benefit. Consumers can in turn reward such responsible behavior with their purchasing dollars, and policymakers can further support such a shift, creating the expectation of responsible behavior among food organizations to minimize waste and increase circularity.
The opportunities in upcycling are great, exciting, inspirational, and even fun — as a review of the many innovative companies in the recently-created Upcycled Food Association shows.
My colleague Sara Roversi (Future Food Institute, Bologna) and I recently published a piece on this exciting new opportunity to transform our global food system in the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) journal entitled Upcycling to a Circular Food System (PDF link here).
I am copying in the text from that article here to further elevate awareness of this exciting, innovative opportunity to transform our global food system by changing mindsets toward our collective valuation of food while driving the expectation of responsible, circular behavior among food organizations.
It is hard to overstate the central and critical nature of food in our lives. We cannot survive without food and yet between one-third and one-half of global food production is lost or wasted annually to the extreme detriment of people and planet.
How we can substantially reduce that waste, beginning with the near-term global Sustainable Development Goal[i] of cutting food waste in half by 2030, is one of the defining challenges facing humanity – and one which must be achieved if we are to sustainably feed nearly 10bn global citizens by 2050.
Sadly, in the developed world we have lost touch with the value of food resources in the post-war era, regressing from a culture of responsibility toward food (where frugality was driven by necessity) to today’s culture of abundance, where excessive production reinforces a cycle of excessive consumption and waste. In an environment where food is ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive and easily disposed of, and where expectations of visual perfection and large portions are high, we have normalised high levels of food waste with disregard for food-insecure citizens and the environment.
More than 80% of food waste in the US occurs in consumer-facing businesses or in the home[ii]. The great irony is that while we depend on food for our survival, our exorbitantly wasteful global food system increasingly threatens our survival. The high level of waste consumes land and other scarce resource inputs, squanders water, degrades soils, intensifies global warming, pollutes waterways and accelerates deforestation and biodiversity loss while hundreds of millions go hungry and suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. The connections are clear: food, climate, planetary health and human health are inseparable – we must fix the food system to ensure human health and a sustainable planet.
While we have made some progress in the last decade in terms of raising awareness of the scope and scale of the global food waste challenge, 2020 marked the start of a critical ‘decade of action’ on food waste. But COVID-19 disrupted that progress, in fact causing even greater levels of waste as the fragility and risks of tightly-wound global food supply chains were exposed. Aside from worldwide economic harm, the real tragedy of the pandemic is that it is elevating food insecurity around the world and pushing millions more into acute hunger.
The world must achieve sharp reductions in food waste in the coming years in order to stem climate change, reduce hunger and aid progress toward multiple Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so requires broad and deep change in consumer behaviour in developed countries that will drive change in retail and foodservice operations and associated supply chains.
The emerging ‘upcycling’ sector shows great promise in beginning to address these issues. In fact, upcycling (manufacturing byproduct utilisation) was ranked as a ‘top ten’ solution to food waste in ReFED’s recent Insights Engine[iii].
Upcycled Food Association
Founded in 2019, the Upcycled Food Association comprises over 130 food organisations and is building on the pioneering work of Jonathan Deutsch of the Drexel Food Lab dating back several years[iv]. Recognising the nonsensical coexistence of excessive food waste and hunger, Deutsch has led a concerted effort to develop viable culinary solutions to food waste reduction by creating value-added surplus products from otherwise-discarded food items[v].
The Association has established a formal definition for upcycled foods: ‘Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment’.
Upcycling is a burgeoning concept within the larger food waste reduction movement and the Association has developed a new Certification Standard[vi], complete with logo, which has the potential to provide added momentum. Upcyclers are leading a new wave of food system change, breaking age-old linear production models, forcing a re-think of ‘waste’ to ‘resource’ and advancing a higher standard for responsible business operations.
Transitioning to a circular economy
Upcycled food companies are addressing one of the key problems of our production systems – their linear nature. For centuries, our production systems have taken resources, made something with them and discarded the byproducts without regard for people or planet.
By transforming existing byproducts into new value-added products, upcycled food organisations can naturally promote the circularity movement. Due to the tight linkage between food and so many other key sustainability challenges (emissions, water, biodiversity, oceans), the reduction of food waste created by upcycling accelerates progress toward many of the Sustainable Development Goals.
At scale, the product-level transformation that lies at the heart of upcycling organisations can also be transformational at the system level – providing a bridge to the regenerative food system, where circularity is business as usual.
Innovation in processing technologies
Most upcycling organisations share the commitment to benefit society and the environment by creating new value from existing food resources that would otherwise go to waste and cause harm. A wide range of innovative processing technologies for food byproducts have been developed by companies keen to address the food waste problem by upcycling it to new value-added products.
For example, Matriark Foods works with farmers and food producers, capturing a portion of the billions of pounds of edible vegetables that never make it to the US market due to off-spec conditions (cosmetic imperfections and sizing variances) along with tons of fresh-cut vegetable remnants from production operations. Matriark adds herbs and spices to transform these vegetables into low-sodium, nutritious, shelf-stable broths and bases for use in large foodservice operations (such as schools, hospitals and food banks), with a new retail presence as well. Each pallet of its vegetable broth concentrate diverts 1,500lbs of vegetables from landfill and makes 80,000 servings of vegetable broth.
The co-founders of the brewing company ReGrained found that for every six-pack of beer they produced, one pound of spent grain remained and so they began baking bread with the excess grain as a means of making money to brew more beer for free (their early version of circularity). They quickly discovered that brewers produce billions of pounds of spent grain annually, which contains plant protein, prebiotic fiber and micronutrients and has a high nutritional value. ReGrained now transforms spent grain into a nutrient-dense flour sold to the food industry as an ingredient for a wide range of mainstream food products, along with its own line of snack puffs for the consumer market.
Similarly, the Coffee Cherry Company has developed and patented an innovative process to dry and process coffee fruit (the outer skin that has long been discarded in the harvesting of coffee beans for roasting) into flour that can be used to produce a myriad of food items, such as breads, cakes, muffins, noodles and pastas. Millions of tons of this fruit are discarded annually in coffee regions, contributing to groundwater pollution and climate emissions.
Further, Renewal Mill has developed a proprietary process to dry and mill the pulp byproducts of plant-based milk production (soybean pulp, oat pulp, and almond pulp), producing flours that are high in fiber and protein and can be used as an ingredient in a range of products. In California, Treasure8 has partnered with the USDA to develop advanced dehydration technology to transform food from waste streams (such as kale, peppers and beets) into nutritious chips and powders. In the Midwest, NETZRO uses proprietary technology (including infrared heating) to reduce, recover, and ‘re-harvest’ food resources, such as brewers’ spent grain, fruit pulp, egg shells and mixed food waste into new beneficial products.
The co-founders of Hidden Gems discovered that more than half of the antioxidants in avocados are contained in the seeds, which are too hard for commercial composting operations. The company brews down the seeds and adds flavourings to create a line of antioxidant-rich drinks and then composts the residual material rather than sending it to landfill.
The 2050 Company rescues imperfect produce and uses state-of-the-art drying technology to process it into nutritious powders for smoothies. In cacao production, 70% of the cacao fruit is typically wasted in the harvesting of the beans for chocolate, reducing earnings for farmers and harming the environment.
Scale of by-product availability
The sectors providing many of the byproducts that serve as raw materials for food upcycling organisations – beer, coffee, tofu, cacao, avocados, bananas and fruit and vegetable production and processing – all provide ready access to win-win partnerships to secure input streams at large scale.
Barnana, which works to eliminate the waste of organic bananas on Latin American farms by upcycling ‘imperfect’ items into banana-based snacks, has already upcycled over 1m bananas since inception. Hidden Gems found that the potential supply of avocado seeds was too large, leading it to ‘scale down’ the production process. The Ugly Company, which upcycles ‘ugly’ (imperfect) fruit into healthy dried fruit snacks, notes that California discards more peaches than the state of Georgia produces annually. Spudsy, which converts imperfect sweet potatoes into snack puffs, explains that over 150m pounds of sweet potatoes are discarded to landfills annually due to cosmetic and sizing imperfections; the company is on track to upcycle 1m sweet potatoes by 2021.
A recent report by WRAP concludes that UK households waste 20m whole slices of bread each day – which translates to 7.3bn slices annually[vii]. By upcycling surplus bread into its operations to replace virgin barley, Toast Ale claims to have saved over 2m slices of bread and the equivalent of 42 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Creative new business models that optimise usage of food byproducts can help change the mindset of consumers.Stories, inspiration, learning, innovation and education are some of the powerful tools being employed by upcycled food organisations to engage consumers. Combine them with a spirit of fun, a sense of audacity, compassion for society and the incredible potential for scale, and you have the makings of a compelling force for change – change for rebuilding a more sustainable, equitable and regenerative food system.
There is a captivating element of fun running through many of these upcycling businesses, evidenced by their creative names (Hidden Gems Beverage Co., Happy Moose Juice, Ugly Pickle, Spudsy and Confetti Snacks) and elevated by their creative websites and messaging. These organisations are bringing creativity and sensemaking to the food system. Their message is that consumers can be a part of transformative food system change through their purchases and they can have fun in the process.
Enlightened consumers can in turn raise their expectations of food producers and retailers, rewarding those which demonstrate responsible environmental and social behaviour by creating shared value for society rather than pursuing the quest to maximise financial value for shareholders.
Upcyclers have the potential to educate consumers about the food waste reduction process, inspiring them to change their behaviours at home and sparking their understanding of the value in upcycled products and processes and, more broadly, circularity, environmental impact and sustainable food.
For example, the Coffee Cherry Company explains the nutritive value of coffee flour while also pointing out that the annual waste of coffee fruit results in over 16m metric tonnes of CO2 emissions. The company even provides an online calculator showing the environmental and economic impact of coffee cherry usage – in short, it can connect consumers to the distant farmers who produce our morning coffee. Toast Ale explains the emissions, land and water savings the company generates by using surplus bread in place of virgin barley to produce its line of beers and ales.
There is also a human element of caring for people and planet. For example, Barnana works to advance a regenerative food system and provide additional income for small-scale farmers through upcycling. The IAmGrounded company focuses on social empowerment and creating economic opportunities for impoverished coffee producing communities through its upcycling of coffee fruit extract into energy bars. The Coffee Cherry Company lists the benefits its ‘found food’ operation can provide as strengthening growers’ communities through increased revenue and jobs (many of which are filled by women), reduced pollution and a high nutrition product; it poses the question: ‘Are you seeing how big this is?’
Upcycling organisations are helping to normalise the concept of food waste reduction by viewing food byproducts as valuable resources, converting them into new, value-added products and providing social and environmental benefits in the process.
By leading changes in consumer purchases and behaviour, upcycling businesses are well-positioned to help change the costly culture of abundance that exists in developed countries, where overproduction is reinforced by overconsumption and excessive waste. If the upcycled food businesses can truly spark a deeper commitment from consumers, they could create a powerful, enduring sustainability story to benefit people and planet.
According to the upcycling company NETZRO, the current food waste problem ‘is so large that we need an entire industry focused on reducing, recovering and reharvesting nutrients’. Our ability to sustainably feed the world in 2050 and beyond as well as the future of our planet demands such a transformation.
The potential for scale is quite clear and commitments to upcycling from global organisations can quickly amplify impact. If we harness that scale, we reduce the amount of food that must be produced to feed nearly 10bn people by 2050, reducing the strain of food production on the environment and providing a vast number of healthy food products to improve nutrition. We can then more easily meet the needs for integrating human and planetary health set out in the EAT-Lancet report[viii].