What Is Upcycled Food?

So you’ve probably heard of upcycled clothing and furniture, but food? Upcycled food is one of the latest trends in food, both preventing food waste and encouraging chefs to get creative with the ingredients they’re presented with. But what does it mean, how does it work, and is it safe to eat? 

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Upcycled food is made with ingredients that would otherwise not have been consumed by humans. It is produced and sourced using verified supply chains and overall has a positive impact on the environment. Upcycled food is safe and often healthy and uses innovative ways to be more efficient. 

With so much food going to waste every day when there are so many hungry people in the world, trying to minimize food waste and make the most out of what already exists before creating more. We’ll take a closer look at upcycling food to answer all questions that arise from one of the coolest food movements around. 

What Is Upcycled Food?

The word that comes to mind for many with upcycled is recycled. Note that these do not mean the same thing! Upcycled food does not refer to food that has been used or eaten before in someone else’s mouth! Instead, upcycling refers to using foods or parts of foods that would typically be discarded and trying to repurpose it with the goal of having zero waste in the food production process. 

As an innovative way to create high-quality food out of surplus food, upcycling food is a consumer product-based solution, meaning that it is a very scalable and economically sustainable solution. By transforming food that would have been wasted into edible food, 

Juice pulp, grains, and food scraps from restaurants, breweries, and supermarkets are finding new life as delicious new products. This also includes ‘ugly’ produce that doesn’t even get to market because growers don’t believe people will want to buy it, such as hail-damaged fruit. 

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Proponents of upcycled food are not suggesting that we eat rotten food, but the food that is thrown out as a byproduct of something, for example, the pulp of fresh juice, or the perfectly good flesh remaining in fruit or vegetables after the bad or marked parts have been cut out, can be reused to make something healthy and delicious. 

Examples

The best-case scenario for food waste typically would be that it ends up in animal feed, and in the worst case that it ends up in a landfill or being incinerated. This wastage is so unnecessary that it should be avoided if it possibly can be. 

While the concept may sound promising, you might not yet be convinced by the products that might come out of waste. If you’re wondering whether these products can actually taste good, we’ll give you some concrete examples that you can relate to of products that will hopefully get your mouth watering. 

  • Potato or vegetable crisps can be made by upcycling pulp that would otherwise have been thrown away and making a tasty snack out of it instead. They can also use ‘ugly’ vegetables.
  • A company called Rise is making flour from the spent barley, which has been used by breweries for beer. They are then selling it to bakeries, restaurants, and supermarkets that they have partnered with. It has more nutrients than regular wheat flour but would otherwise just be wasted. 
  • Excess milk can be used in cheese manufacturing.
  • Condiments, chutneys, relishes, and kinds of ketchup can be made from uglies.
  • Soups can be made from uglies and from vegetable pulp
  • Candid, a chocolate brand, has re-engineered the way chocolate is produced to use almost the whole fruit. Pulp is removed and set aside at the beginning of the process and then used again afterward as the primary sweetener in the chocolate. 
  • Coffee plant fruit, usually a byproduct that is thrown out when coffee beans are harvested, can be used to make gluten-free flour which can be used as an ingredient in tortillas or cookies.

Why Do We Upcycle Food?

Upcycling food is not only about the actual food that goes to waste but about the broader implications and the wasted water, energy, and land resources that go into producing food that is never consumed. 

The energy used, from labor in production to transport, should not be wasted, and products can be upcycled into tasty, healthy, and safely edible products that can be produced as scale. Further, these are some of the other reasons why we should be upcycling more food: 

  • Upcycled food is good for the environment: About 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted each year globally. This accounts for 30% of the food produced annually around the world. Aesthetic shortcomings on fresh produce cost farmers, on average, 20% of their crop each year, too, adding to the food waste products that are perfectly edible and healthy. 

When food rots, it produces methane, a gas twenty times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2 is. With food waste responsible for 70 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, it makes sense from an environmental point of view to try to minimize the amount of food waste that is just left to rot. 

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  • Good for food and water security: By extracting, filtering, and mineralizing water used in the production of juice concentrate, not only is water scarcity reduced but the pulp can then also be used in making upcycled dried fruit products. 
  • It makes good business sense: With increasing pressure from consumers and a younger demographic who are more conscious of where their food comes from and how it was produced, businesses are becoming more conscious about their processes and the need to be transparent about them. 

Not only is food waste a hidden cost that inflates prices and undermines profitability, but consumers are more interested in spending their money with businesses that are environmentally conscious and making an effort to have as small a negative environmental footprint as possible. 

  • Upcycled food is good for you: So much food waste comes from fresh produce, which is some of the healthiest food out there and can therefore be used to create healthy upcycled products. Not only this, but much of the food that goes unused or gets thrown away accounts for the most nutritious parts. 

By using the whole nut in peanut butter rather than discarding the skin or the pulp from plant-based milk (e.g., soy, almond, or oat milk), and then turning that into flour, the consumer is not affected by an inferior product, but there is just less that is thrown out and essentially, food production becomes more efficient. 

  • Upcycled foods have a supply chain that can be audited: When 28% of agricultural land is wasted on food that is never eaten, having an auditable supply chain ensures that waste is reduced by helping farmers to utilize all the nutrients on their farms and get the most value from their land that they can. 

With a growing population, upcycling foods can ensure that the increasing demand for food is met without causing an increase in deforestation or putting extra pressure on the environment to handle this burden. 

Where Did This Movement Come From?

The concept of upcycling food is not new and can be traced back to ancient times, when people used up all that they had – from all the parts on an animal carcass that had been hunted and eaten to the entire parts of edible plants, from the roots to the leaves. 

Upcycled food items that you may be familiar with are sausages. All the trimmings and the leftovers get ground up together and have spices and flavors added to them before being repackaged and sold as a different product. Of course, there are more refined versions of sausages these days, with purer meat content, but they originated for this reason. 

Upcycling is not so much something new as a new way of looking at things. We have labeled products as waste and treated them as such, but upcycling changes the way that this food is transported, stored, and used. It looks at this food as an ingredient rather than as waste, so it is simply a new perspective and label for what already exists and using it in a new way. 

Is There Any Regulation Of Upcycled Foods?

The Upcycled Food Association is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2019.  It has a certification program, the first third-party certification program for upcycled ingredients and food products. There is an on-package mark, which helps both retailers to promote upcycled food, and consumers to make mindful shopping decisions and prevent food waste with their purchases.

With this mark, an indication is given that the product is produced with upcycled ingredients or produced with surplus food or food byproducts that have a positive impact on the environment and use verifiable supply chains. There are three different certifications, and they all have slightly different meanings in terms of what they contain.

Upcycled Ingredient

More than 95% upcycled inputs by weight, this defines single ingredient inputs that aren’t sold directly to consumers, which were originally produced for use in human food and that otherwise would not have been consumed by humans. These ingredients need to have been procured using verifiable supply chains and, at the same time, have a positive environmental impact.

A Product Containing Upcycled Ingredients

More than 10% certified upcycled ingredients by weight, these foods, beverages, cosmetic products, pet foods, personal care, or household cleaning products can make use of the Upcycled Certified claims and Marks. Products with Minimal Upcycled Ingredient Content: 

Similar to the above category, these products have less than 10% upcycled ingredients by weight. 

The upcycled Food Association is conducting research, designing strategies, networking, and creating policies to coordinate a global system of members to create a circular food economy. Businesses can become members, who then get access to tools, networks, and resources to help them become leaders in promoting upcycled food. 

Who Are The Leaders In Upcycled Food?

Entrepreneurs the world over are getting excited about the opportunities that upcycling food provides. Some of the notable leaders in this area, from all over the world, are listed below, so make sure you keep an eye out for their products if they’re near to you.

  • Aqua Botanical in Australia is extracting, filtering, and mineralizing water that is used in the production of juice concentrate.
  • Kromkommer in the Netherlands sells imperfect fruit and vegetables.
  • Matriark Foods in the USA takes surplus produce from farms and turns it into soups and sauces. This is supplied to hospitals, schools, and food banks.
  • Netzro in the USA works with farmers to reharvest food byproducts and develop innovative new ingredients.
  • Pure Plus+ in the USA processes imperfect vegetables and fruit into a powdered sugar substitute used in other products.
  • Rise and Win Brewing Co in Japan upcycle in every stage of their process, notably making granola from the spent grain in the brewing process.
  • Rubies in the Rubble in the UK make condiments from rejected food products.
  • Sweet Benin in West Africa makes cashew apple juice.
  • Toast Ale in the UK uses surplus bread to replace grain for one third of their brewing requirements.
  • Treasure8 in the US aims to reduce food waste from landfills to create nutritious food products and ingredients.
  • Upcycled Grain Project in New Zealand uses grain from brewers nationwide to create crispy snacks.
  • Wize Monkey in Canada helps coffee farmers to use the leaves of the tree to produce tea. 

How Can You Upcycle Food In Your Own Home?

Upcycling is not just for businesses that can reuse food at scale and have the advantages of technology that can help them to do that. There are steps that you can take at home to ‘upcycle’ food in your own kitchen and make more conscious decisions about how to use the food that you cook.

Whether it’s drying out teabags to use as gift cards or roasting your potato peels to make crisps, there are a host of examples that you can use as inspiration to come up with ways or reusing food, pr using different parts of food that you might ordinarily throw away that work for you.

  • Use your fruit and vegetable peels to make delicious snacks. Apple peels baked in the oven with a sprinkle of cinnamon or potato or carrot peels roasted with some salt and pepper to make vegetable crisps are an easy way to use the whole vegetable instead of throwing away the peels.
  • Use the stalks of herbs and vegetables in soups or sauces. Instead of throwing away the stalks, use them. Whether it’s the stalks of basil in pesto or of broccoli in a soup, there is no need to only use the leafy part of a vegetable. 

If a recipe specifically calls for only the leaves, save the rest to blend up into something delicious. If you can’t do this immediately, keep them in a scrap bag in the freezer. When you have the time of need, you can use the vegetable scraps or meat scraps to make a soup or stock.

  • If you’re only using the juice of citrus, such as squeezing a lemon into something, save the rind for later. Peel it and put it into the freezer, or use it in another dish. It can add so much flavor to everything from chicken to cookies to sauces and more. 
  • Melon rind can be pickled! Between the soft fruity flesh that we love to eat in summer and the outer skin is the firm rind. This can be pickled and added in salads and gazpachos as a replacement for cucumber.
  • Use banana peels as a polish. Whether it’s your leather shoes or your silverware, banana peels can make a great replacement for polish and leave your goods shiny as new. 
  • Onion and garlic peels can be used to make stock for soup. Boil them up with other leftovers to get a nutritionally rich, flavorful vegetable stock that you can use in other dishes. 
  • Make breadcrumbs from stale bread and then freeze them instead of throwing the remainder of the loaf away. These can then be used as a batter, in burger patties, or other recipes that may call for it. 
  • Turn overripe fruit or leftover fruit salad into a smoothie.

There are multiple ways to use food instead of throwing it away and to use other parts of food that you may not usually do. Get creative, look for uses for specific food items you use often and think have potential, and try to maximize the ingredients you do buy. 

All About Upcycled Food

Buying upcycled snacks and products is one of the easiest ways that people can do their part in saving the planet as consumers. Look for the black and white upcycled food label with a green leaf the next time you’re shopping. Whether you’ll buy it or not, the concept makes undeniable sense in reducing the massive volume of food that is wasted globally.