What are upcycled foods?
One of the latest food trend is upcycling. According to the upcycled food association, it can be defined as:
“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 food is a means to reduce food waste and transform it into nutritious and high-quality products, using nutrients that would otherwise be lost in the food supply chain. It also means to take advantage of every part of the food, from peels to seeds and leaves, and developing them into a new product.
The upcycling of food also has a lot of environmental and nutrition benefits. Let’s consider that up to a third of the global food produced is wasted. While around one-ninth of the total population suffers from hunger, it is clear that we need to develop new and innovative ways to divert food from being wasted.
On average, every American wastes half a kilo of food every day. The United Nations has estimated that more than US$400 billion of food are wasted before reaching the stores. Furthermore, food waste accounts for 19% of all waste deposited in landfills. Their decay directly contributes to greenhouse gas production, and especially methane, which has a significant effect on climate change. In Europe, around 20% of the total food produced is lost or wasted.
The human population is projected to increase in the coming decades, and feeding them following our current consumption patterns won’t be easy. The EAT-Lancet Commission recommends cutting food losses and waste in half and shifting diets towards a more environmentally friendly structure in order to feed everyone sustainably.
The evolving values of consumers
Consumers are one of the leading actors in this new upcycling trend. By becoming more aware of the impacts of their purchasing choices, they have a decisive vote in new industry developments. This segment of consumers is growing, and companies are accommodating their practices to satisfy their ethical concerns.
In the US, 81% of people affirm that appearance is at least somewhat important to them when shopping for fresh produce. At the same time, 62% say that they would be at least somewhat comfortable eating ugly produce. Ugly produce accounts for nearly 40% of all the food produced in the US. That means that if retailers cannot sell the imperfect items, they would probably end up wasted.
The term upcycled has been found to be viewed by customers as ‘value-added surplus foods’ and understood to be different from conventional products. Many consumers might see the benefits of upcycled foods similar to organic certification in terms of sustainability.
The upcycled food industry
In 2011, 11 companies were specializing in upcycling food; in 2017, that number was 64, and today the industry is worth nearly $50 billion. Once a niche industry, upcycled food is almost a mainstream trend.
The upcycled food industry was worth more than US$46.7 billion in 2019, and it is expected to grow at a rate of 5% every year for the next ten years. The most lucrative segment is beverage processing. The most lucrative region is Europe, which is also the fastest-growing market.
In the coming years, North America and Europe will remain important markets for the different products from food waste, and East Asia has high growth potential. Food waste can be used to make several products; the main categories are animal feed, dietary supplements, cosmetics, beverage processing, and food processing.
The two industries that hold a significant market potential are bakeries and beverage processing. Rejected fruits that are too cosmetically damaged to be sold directly to consumers are a prime ingredient to make juice. The end product is still nutritionally valuable and maintains the fruit’s properties. Bakeries are starting to utilize gluten-free ingredients from alternative sources that are also cost-effective—a win-win for industry and the environment.
Many foods and beverage companies have corporate targets to reduce their waste. For example, Unilever has an initiative that uses the leftover liquid from canned chickpeas to produce vegan mayonnaise. Tyson Foods used to make protein bars sourced from leftover chicken breast, vegetable purée, and juice pulp; however, they recently announced they will no longer continue with this endeavor.
Startups in the upcycled food industry
Not so long ago, imperfect or “ugly fruits” and vegetables were simply discarded; today, they can be used as an ingredient to produce something else. Produce leaves, pulps, and seeds are also used by the FoodTech industry to transform them into value-added, nutrient-rich new products.
Below you can find four exciting FoodTech startups that have revolutionized the food upcycled trend.
When making beer, the grain used in the brewing process leaves behind residues that are protein and fiber-rich, and that also have a lot of micronutrients; Regrained uses this to make a flour they call SuperGrain+, which is incorporated into snack puffs. The company is also selling the flour to other manufacturers.
Regrained was founded in 2013 and has raised US$2.5 million in funding.
Outcast has developed a technology that transforms surplus vegetables and fruits into high-value whole-plant powders. Besides reducing food waste and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, they are able to recapture nutrients. Outcast works with food brokers, farms, grocers, and food manufacturers to convert food waste into cosmetics, pet food, and natural health products.
Outcast was funded in 2017 and has raised US$11.9 million in funding.
3. WTRMLN WTR
WTRMLN WTR uses watermelons that would otherwise have been discarded because of aesthetic reasons. Instead, they repurpose them to make flavored water. Their products are hand-selected, hand-skinned, and cold-pressed using the rind and flesh. Afterward, it is treated with a short and innovative nutrient preserving process and refrigerated until consumed in BPA-free plastic bottles.
WTRMLN WTR was funded in 2013 and has raised US$3.8 million in funding.
4. Pulp Pantry
Pulp Pantry takes the byproducts of fruit and vegetable industrial processing and transforms them into Pulp Chips. The chips are a wholesome pantry staple that provide nearly a full day’s serving of gut-healthy fiber from upcycled ingredients, including celery, organic kale, and okra. Pulp Chips are grain-free, nutrient-dense, veggie chips.
Pulp Pantry was founded in 2015 and has raised US$150 thousand in funding.
Looking for more inspiration? There are some notable additions, full of creativity and flavors, so foodies and environmentalists can join forces and enjoy the fruits of nature.
– Barnana, they make snacks from bananas that would otherwise have been discarded.
– Scraps Pizza, the company uses traditionally wasted food, such as imperfect peppers and bruised leaves, to make frozen pizza.
– Toast Ale, beer made from surplus bread.
While the Agri-food industry is thriving, promoting innovation in a wide range of products and services, we can recognize the importance of extended shelf-life for fruits and vegetables, achieved thanks to new coatings, storage, and supply chain initiatives where the private and public sectors are working together; and, the upcycled food trend, where leftovers and ugly produce found their value in a new market.
The upcycled food movement is growing, and that is very good news for our planet and ourselves. This sustainable trend can help us deal with food waste, environmental impacts and alleviate hunger.