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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Upcycled Food Is Finally Having a Moment

With up to 40 percent of food wasted and the U.S. food supply chain currently struggling, upcycled food is now finally having its moment.
Upcycled Food

With up to 40 percent of food wasted and the U.S. food supply chain currently struggling, interest in developing new ways to make food is surging. To that end, the Upcycled Food Association is looking ahead to more food companies joining its ranks as well as starting a product certification program later this year. Founded in 2019, the organization’s mission focused on “reducing food waste by growing the upcycled food economy,” whether that be retailers selling misshaped vegetables or repurposing grains used to brew beer into snack foods.

The definition was created recently by the nonprofit’s task force, which worked for six months and included researchers from Harvard and Drexel Universities, members of nonprofits ReFED, Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund. A report and infographic of the findings are scheduled to be released to the public.

As defined by the task force, "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." 

Ben Gray, chief operations officer of the Upcycled Food Association, said in a release that the definition would help the group "clarify the vision" and be the basis for the new product certification program. 

When the certification program is up and running, food products that meet a series of requirements will be marked with a seal indicating they are Certified Upcycled. Resources will be available to teach shoppers about the impact of upcycled foods and help them find upcycled products locally. 

A clear definition also could be another boost for a rapidly growing industry. According to one estimate, the upcycled food industry could be valued at more than $46 billion, with a 5 percent compound annual growth rate predicted, noted a report published by Future Market Insights last year.  

The association now has more than 70 members, mostly in the U.S., and about 400 different upcycled food products on the market. Companies are using the byproducts from food waste in beverages and food as well as supplements, biofuel and pet food. Member businesses include the Ugly Company, which sells upcycled fruit, and Hidden Gem Beverage Co., which produces drinks from avocado seeds. A potential partnership is in the works between Cargill and Renmatix. The companies are researching upcycling plant materials into food ingredients, which could be included in baked goods, meat products, dairy items, sauces and soups.

Besides emerging as a growth industry, upcycled food has the benefits of reducing the cost of tons of food being wasted annually and the impact of that food waste on the environment. Retailers lose about $18.2 billion a year from food waste, according to ReFED. As reported by the World Resources Institute, as much as one-third of the food produced for peoples’ tables is wasted.

Using upcycled ingredients also can help decrease the more than 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases food waste creates, according to Forbes; that amount represents about 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans. 

“Reducing food waste is the single greatest solution to climate change according to Project Drawdown," noted Gray.

Shoppers also are increasingly influenced by sustainability and reducing food waste in their shopping choices, even during the upheaval of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which indicates there is even more promise for a growing market for upcycled goods. In fact, the number of consumers considering the environment when shopping increased since last year and even since the beginning of the pandemic. Last year, 71 percent of consumers reported reflecting on the environment at least occasionally when shopping. The figure was up to 78 percent by March 6, and on April 10, after many people had been in quarantine for several weeks, the figure went to 83 percent. 

Upcycled foods also could play a stabilizing role as the supply chain struggles to adjust to the pandemic. According to Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and task force member, "Scaling up the use of upcycled foods offers a powerful opportunity to make our supply chain more efficient and resilient."

Image credit: Imperfect Foods/Facebook

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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