Upcycled food: A sustainable second chance for food loss and waste
I took the first bite with trepidation but was pleasantly surprised by the taste of a sandwich containing an item I routinely throw into the garbage bin — banana peels. This eye-opening (or rather palate-expanding) experience took place in a UC Davis classroom in the spring of 2019, where I teach. I was participating as a faculty judge in a food product development competition.
There, a number of student teams were providing taste tests of their novel food items made with “upcycled” ingredients, including the aforementioned bbq “pulled pork” banana peel sandwich. Over the course of the event, I realized I was not only tasting the hard-earned flavors and textures developed over many student-hours logged in the campus test kitchen, I was also tasting the future of a more sustainable food system.
As defined by the emergent Upcycled Food Association, “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.” The potential for reducing the environmental impact of food has been a key driver for the upcycled food movement. Upcycling entrepreneurs have been inspired by the shocking statistic that roughly 30-35 percent of all food produced, both nationwide and globally, is lost or wasted at some point along the food supply chain. When this food goes uneaten, all the resource investments of land, water, energy and other material inputs needed to grow, process, package and deliver the food, are lost as well. Meanwhile, agriculture and livestock production represent approximately 10 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, so wasted food carries a significant portion of this environmental burden as well.
With upcycling, food that was previously wasted can be recovered for human consumption, and thus, the environmental costs of upstream resource inputs and GHG emissions are not borne in vain. Fundamentally, upcycling allows us to “do more with less” in our food system. If we eat more of the food we are already producing, it reduces the pressure to expand food production to meet growing demand from increasing population and shifting diets.
Along with these avoided environmental costs, there is also ample opportunity for economic gain. Upcycling is fundamentally based on recovering low-value food losses and returning this material to the food supply chain as a value-added retail food product. ReFED, the leading U.S.-based nonprofit focused on food loss and waste, estimates the market potential for upcycled food products to be roughly $2.7 billion per year. This comes with the added benefits of diverting 1.87 million tons of waste from landfills, reducing GHG emissions by 4.85 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, saving 446 billion gallons of water and creating nearly 3,000 jobs.
The combined economic, social and environmental return on investment, or “triple bottom line,” of food upcycling has caught the attention of entrepreneurs, investors and multinational food companies. In the last few years, a range of novel products has made its way onto retail shelves that include upcycled ingredients, such as:
spent grains leftover from brewing beer
okara, or soy pulp, generated from the production tofu and soymilk
aquafaba, the residual liquid from cooking chickpeas
the coffee cherry fruit that surrounds the coffee bean in cultivation
among many others
While adding value to food waste streams may seem like a new phenomenon, it is just the latest example of converting waste-to-value in the food system. In fact, farmers and food producers have been generating innovative upcycling solutions throughout history. From drinking cheese whey as a health tonic in Ancient Greece to the invention of baby carrots in the 1980s, we have been practicing upcycling for millennia. However, despite these ancient roots, the upcycling movement has undeniably gained new energy and momentum in recent years — including being identified as a top 10 food trend in 2021 by Whole Foods Markets. Further, where previous waste-to-value producers generally downplayed the waste origins of their products, the new generation of upcycling producers highlight it as a badge of honor.
This pivot in messaging by the new upcycling movement provides an excellent opportunity for education and discussion about our food systems. It encourages storytelling and motivates innovation. I saw this firsthand when advising a team of students as they developed a new food product derived from the fruit and vegetable pulp from a local juicery. They ultimately succeeded in winning an award from our annual UC Davis business competition, not only because their product tasted great, but also because they had the compelling story of upcycling baked into their recipe.
The upcycled food business community now has a chance to tell this story broadly to consumers through the Upcycled Certification Standard, which I had an input on as a member of the Upcycle Foods Standards Committee. Launched in 2021, the standard establishes clear criteria for producers to place a label on their product packaging, which quickly and clearly signals to a consumer that a food item is a certified upcycled product. As a result, food producers tell their story of upcycling directly to their customers, and customers gain a new perspective on the environmental, social and economic benefits of upcycling within our shared food system.
Now are you ready for your banana peel sandwich?
Edward Spang is an assistant professor of food science and technology at UC Davis, faculty lead for the UC Davis Food Loss and Waste Collaborative, and member of the Upcycled Foods Standards Committee.