Upcycled food: the zero waste revolution is here

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Whole food recently identified upcycled food as the top food trend for 2021. According to a team of experts from Harvard Law School, Drexel University, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and ReFED:

“Recycled foods are those that use ingredients that would not otherwise have been intended for human consumption, are sourced and produced through verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”

In this sense, this food trend gives life and added value to deformed or aesthetically unattractive fruits and vegetables and pulp or leftover juice peels -among others- to turn this material into healthy and nutritional quality food.

For example, you can take very damaged or overripe bananas to make snacks; or aesthetically damaged apples to make juices. The possibilities are too many.

The trend contributes to sustainability and the circular economy

The circular economy’s main objective is to extend the useful life of products, using waste to give life to new elements and, in this way, reduce the consumption of raw materials and the carbon footprint.

Precisely what is achieved with upcycled food? This trend reconfigures the typical cycle of manufacture, use, and disposal of food in favor of the most significant possible reuse and recycling, avoiding waste as much as possible and optimizing energy spent on growing, transporting, and preparing them.

This is very important considering that more than 30% of all food worldwide is lost or wasted, also spending the resources and inputs used to produce it.

According to figures compiled by Our World in Data, this is a common malpractice in agriculture. This sector demands more than half of the world’s habitable land and freshwater withdrawals.

How is this food trend positioned in today’s market?

As a starting point, it is essential to mention that this trend contributes to one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the UN for 2030: reducing food waste. Moreover, being an innovative approach that contributes to the development of the circular economy in the industry, it is highly scalable and economically sustainable.

Of course, it also has a growing acceptance among consumers. Evidenced by a 2021 study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences cited in a Forbes article. Only 10% of consumers are familiar with recycled foods, but 80% say they would seek them out once they are informed about them.

Along the same lines, data compiled by the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) shows that 60% of people want to buy more recycled food products, and that’s because 95% of people want to do their part to reduce food waste in their own lives.

Hence – little by little – this trend has been gaining ground in the market, responding to the interests of consumers who are increasingly aware of what they eat and the carbon footprint behind the food they eat.

In 2011, 11 companies specialized in food recycling; in 2017, the number reached 64; in 2019, it was already a sector worth $46.7 billion and is expected to grow at a rate of 5% each year for the next ten years.

Relationship between the upcycled food trend and food waste reduction

According to FAOfood waste is a concept that refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food due to the decisions and actions of retailers, food service providers, and consumers.

It is very different from food loss. In this case, the reduction in the quantity or quality of food results from suppliers’ decisions and actions in the food chain, excluding retailers, food service providers, and consumers.

In either case, upcycled food is key to solving the problem and laying the foundation for a more sustainable food industry.

More and more companies are coming up with solutions to recycle food waste

Today, companies of all sizes are acting to reduce food waste. A clear example of this is Hellmann’s: through its #MakeTasteNoWaste campaign, the company seeks to reduce food waste in households by providing ideas to take advantage of those foods that, despite being in good condition, are invisible and end up in the trash can.

Nestlé is another excellent example of how companies not traditionally associated with this food trend are now joining this new approach.

The company joined champions123.org -a coalition that brings together executives from the public and private sectors to comply with point 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals-, committing to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.

In the field of fruit waste, it is worth mentioning the partnership between Dole – the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer – and the London-based startup Ananas Anam, the company behind Piñatex, a pineapple-based vegan leather alternative used by brands such as Nike, H&M, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss to create animal cruelty-free products.

In practice, Dole will collect leftover pineapple plant leaves from its plantations in the Philippines, which would otherwise go to waste, and send them to Ananas Anam, which will extract, dry, and process the fibers into a nonwoven mesh that forms the basis of Pinatex.

Dole says the partnership will help it meet its promise of zero fruit loss by 2025, while Ananas Anam points out that every square meter of Pinatex saves 8 kilograms of CO2 versus genuine animal-derived leather.

In the same line, Dole notes that it recycles 80% of the “ugly” fruit that would otherwise be discarded at its farms in Thailand. The practices implemented range from transforming banana leaves into packaging, developing snacks from unaesthetic vegetables, and generating electricity from misshapen or rotten produce.

Together with booming technologies such as natural coatings, this trend will drastically reduce food waste in the medium term, favoring the industry’s sustainability and care for the environment.

Of course, beyond the role of consumers, innovation in the food sector is critical here, so food tech is crucial to transform production models and ensure that the industry adopts a sustainable approach.