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Upcycled foods: how to tackle food waste the tasty and healthy way

June 1, 2021 7 min. read
by Amanda Bourbonais

Innovative CPG brands are making sustainability part of their mission and food waste a thing of the past with upcycled foods––and so can you.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels

“Upcycling” is the trendy, stylish cousin to regular old recycling. While recycling takes something old, breaks it down, and reuses the raw materials to make something new, upcycling promises to repurpose an existing unused item or byproduct in a way that adds value, to create something better rather than simply renewed.1, 2

The first thing you might think of when you hear the word “upcycling” is clothing. Popular with high fashion and DIY-ers alike, upcycled clothes take old fabric or garments and make a new, fashionable item. But what about upcycled foods? How can we reduce food waste in America by taking excess and/or unattractive foods as well as food manufacturing byproducts and make them into a healthy and delicious new food item? This is the challenge of upcycling food. 

In this blog: 

  • What are upcycled foods?
  • How do CPG companies use upcycled foods?
  • Ways to upcycle your own food

What are upcycled foods?

Basically, upcycled foods are fresh foods that, for some reason, would have been thrown out––due to aesthetic imperfection, overripeness, or consumer disinterest––but instead they are given a new life as a new food product or in an innovative recipe. Upcycled foods are created in the name of “waste not, want not,” and they can be healthy and delicious to boot! 

According to the Upcycled Food Association, this is the official 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.”2

There are many ways to upcycle foods, with the ultimate goal of using as much food as possible for human consumption and minimizing food waste.

The food recovery hierarchy

Foods can be “upcycled” as compost and animal food, but the main goal is to use them for nutritious and sustainable food sources for people, first. With the goal of food waste reduction in mind, the EPA has outlined a food recovery hierarchy that designates how potential wasted food should be prioritized.3 From the top to the bottom of the hierarchy:

  1. Source reduction: reduce the volume of excess food produced in the first place.
  2. Feed hungry people: donate extra produce to shelters and food banks for local distribution.
  3. Feed animals: create animal food from extra food.
  4. Industrial use: provide waste oils and food scraps for conversion to fuel and energy.
  5. Composting: create nutrient rich soil which will go on to produce more nutritious food.
  6. Landfill/incineration: the last resort for excess food disposal. 

New upcycled food products fit somewhere around #2 on this list; the foods are still going to feed people, but they are being marketed and sold instead of freely distributed. 

This presents an ethical dilemma that hasn’t gone unnoticed. If upcycled food products are being created from leftover but otherwise edible whole foods, does that mean food is being diverted away from places like local food pantries? This is not the intention of the upcycled food movement––ultimately it seeks to strike a balance between decreasing food waste while still ensuring that food gets to those who need it most.4

Solving the food waste problem

Food waste is a massive problem in the U.S. and beyond. But the United States is one of the biggest food wasters, with a whopping 30% of our food wasted each year at the minimum.5 To solve this problem, we not only have to get creative about how we use the food we buy on a consumer level, we also have to innovate new ways to use food that would otherwise go to waste on a producer level. This is where upcycling food comes in. 

Upcycling food can span everything from services that deliver less aesthetically pleasing produce that might not sell easily in the supermarket straight to your door, to creating completely new upcycled food products like protein bars that use dehydrated vegetable powders from would-be wasted produce. Upcycling foods is a big part of solving the food waste problem.

What’s more, as consumers learn more about this issue, it seems that they want to purchase food products that make them feel like they are making environmentally conscious choices and saving food waste.6 Upcycled foods even made the list on Whole Foods food trends to watch out for in 2021.7

How do CPG companies use upcycled food?

CPG companies can use upcycled food in a number of different ways. For some, it’s directly a part of their product, while others end up with upcycled food as a byproduct of their process. Here are a couple of examples of ways companies use upcycled food.

Vegetable powders

Whether it's excess produce or edible parts of vegetables that don’t end up on supermarket shelves, excess veggies can be dried and turned into fine powders that are added to products like protein bars, smoothies, soups, and stews. Or the powders are sold on their own for consumers to add to their own recipes as needed. They add a boost of micronutrients, antioxidants, and plant polyphenols, while avoiding food waste.

Registered Dietitian and UTNI Nutrition Innovation Lead Kate Morton was able to catch up with one CPG entrepreneur that uses these vegetable powders in her company to create nutritious and delicious plant-based protein bars. You can watch their conversation here

Using and repurposing byproducts

Other CPG companies create byproducts as a result of their production process––byproducts that are still edible and nutritious food. Veggie and fruit scraps are one such example, in the case of a juice company or veggie noodle company (not something we would have thought of just years ago!). 

Some of these byproducts can look like: 

  • Fruit and vegetable pulp, essentially the fiber left over when the nutrients and juice have been extracted
  • Odds and ends of produce.

What can be done with the byproducts: 

  • Incorporate them into other products like smoothies, bone broth, veggie broth, and even baby food
  • Feed to animals
  • Compost.

At the 2020 Taste of Texas event, we had the opportunity to speak to CPG business owners that are making these upcycling practices a central part of their business model. To learn more about them, you can check out more content from the event here

Upcycled food certification – coming soon! 

Exciting news! Companies will soon be able to apply for an upcycled food certification from the Upcycled Food Association. The Upcycled Food Association was founded in 2019 and has grown its members to over 100 companies using upcycled food. The association supports the reduction of food waste by growing the upcycled foods economy. You can read more about the Upcycled Food Association’s mission here

Ways to upcycle your own food 

As consumers, we have to be mindful of how we are making the most of our food every day. Here are a few options to start upcycling food yourself.

Use every part. Trimming the ends off your veggies? Save them in a large plastic bag in the freezer. When you fill up the bag, dump the contents in a large pot with water and get a veggie broth simmering on the stove. The same thing goes with that leftover chicken carcass after your Sunday roast chicken dinner. Toss in any herbs or greens you have lying around that might be starting to go off too. Then, make a delicious soup with the broth! 

Compost. You can buy a compost bin to create the perfect nutrient rich medium for your vegetable garden in the spring and summer with your leftover fruit and vegetable scraps. But, if you’re unable to do it yourself, there are many services and local gardens that will gladly accept your leftovers and food waste. Just make sure to follow their rules; for example, meat, fish, dairy, and oils are usually not allowed for pest control reasons.8

Share. Got leftovers? Made way too much spaghetti––again? Suddenly find yourself with ten too many zucchinis from your garden? Spread the love! Offer meals and extra produce you can’t use to friends, family, or neighbors. Everyone loves free food, and you’ll be doing your part to make that food go as far as possible. 

Upcycling food is a new frontier for both CPG companies and the everyday consumer. At its core, upcycling food encourages us all to be more mindful of how we purchase and use food, ideally to its fullest extent, and how we can provide more food for our communities, too. What can you do today to reduce food waste and make the most out of the food you have?

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