Upcycling, a trendy new word for an old idea, is a solution that
can help take a bite out of our massive food waste problem, say its supporters.
The process, which involves transforming the leftovers from food manufacturing into value-added products, is nothing new. After all, it’s been used to make everything from hot dogs to whey. But it’s catching on with a number of startups that are saving potentially wasted ingredients from the bin and turning them into upcycled foods.
Upcycling “is here to stay because it is really not rocket science. It’s just about using all parts of the product, if possible,” says Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at the Center for Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who has been studying consumer acceptance of this new category of foods created from discarded ingredients. Not only does upcycling allow manufacturers to increase efficiency and make money from food byproducts that may have gone to waste, but consumers are also receptive to the idea, Deutsch says.
When consumers are given brief messaging about the value of reducing food waste, “they are much more likely to choose the upcycled product and will even pay more for some product categories than conventional foods,” Deutsch says. Drexler’s research has found that consumers believe upcycled foods are more beneficial to the environment than conventional foods.
Drexel researchers are now exploring the creation of a third-party certification for upcycled foods that would give consumers confidence in food quality and help market the products.
Deutsch cautions that upcycling can only put a dent into food waste since a lot of food loss occurs at consumers’ homes. Still, “millions of tons of food can be upcycled in a very tangible way.”
“Most consumers are interested in products that are better for them and better for the planet and taste great. The upcycled category really checks all those boxes, when it’s done well,” says Dan Kurzrock, co-founder of San Francisco-based upcycler ReGrained.
The company uses a proprietary method to turn spent grain from local brewers into a flour called SuperGrain+ that is high in protein and fibre. ReGrained sells three flavours of granola bars made from SuperGrain+ in about 1,000 outlets on the U.S. West Coast. A line of salty snacks is also coming out this summer.
The granola bars serve as a calling card and “an educational vehicle to talk about this new grain” to potential supply chain partners, Kurzrock says, noting ReGrained is doing development work with pasta maker Barilla and other multinational CPG companies on a broad array of potential applications—from pasta and pizza crusts to crackers and chips.
Last year, Jonathan Rodrigue launched Stillgood, a Montreal company that takes spent grain from craft brewers and juice pulp from fresh juice companies and upcycles them into bars and cookies. Stillgood’s cookies and bars are sold in some IGA (Sobeys) and Metro stores, independent grocers and zero-waste markets either in bulk or with 100% compostable packaging.
“I realized there were a lot of local companies that were not upcycling or not composting, that did not have any alternatives for their byproducts,” says Rodrigue, the former development director at the food bank Moisson Montreal. “Food waste is a global problem, which, in my opinion, is something that needs to be tackled locally.”
Rodrigue believes the future of the food manufacturing business lies in upcycling. “In a world where you have one-third of the food produced going to waste, there’s no way the industry can just continue like this.” He also sees grocers benefiting from upcycling. A Jumbo supermarket in the Dutch town of Wageningen has already begun selling a line of products made from food waste, and it is reporting that sales have surpassed expectations.
“I see upcycling in the same place organic or vegan foods were 10, 15 years ago,” Rodrigue says. “I think we’re in the beginning of a new category of foods.”
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s May issue.