Recycled food: a sustainable second chance for food loss and waste
I took the first bite apprehensively, but was pleasantly surprised by the taste of a sandwich containing an item I regularly throw in the trash – banana peels. This eye-opening (or rather enriching) experience took place in a classroom at UC Davis in the spring of 2019, where I teach. I was participating as a faculty judge in a food development competition.
There, a number of student teams offered taste tests of their new food products made with “recycled” ingredients, including the aforementioned “pulled pork” banana peel barbecue sandwich. During the event, I realized that I was not only tasting the hard-earned flavors and textures developed during many student hours recorded in the campus test kitchen, I was also tasting the future of ” a more sustainable food system.
As defined According to the new Upcycled Food Association, “Recycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have been intended for human consumption, are purchased and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on l ‘environment.” The potential for reducing the environmental impact of food has been one of the main drivers of the food recovery movement. Upcycling entrepreneurs were inspired by the shocking statistic that 30-35 percent of all food produced, nationally and globally, is lost or wasted at some point in the food supply chain. When this food is not consumed, all investments in land resources, water, energy and other material inputs necessary for the cultivation, processing, packaging and delivery of the food are also lost. During this time, agriculture and animal husbandry represent about 10 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, so food waste also carries a significant portion of that environmental burden.
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. Basically, upcycling allows us to “do more with less” in our food system. If we eat more food than we already produce, reduced the pressure to increase food production to meet the growing demands of the growing population and changing diets.
Along with these avoided environmental costs, there are also many opportunities for economic gains. Upcycling is fundamentally based on recovering low value food loss and returning this material to the food supply chain as a value added retail food product. ReFED, the leading US-based nonprofit that focuses on food loss and waste, estimates the market potential for recycled food products to be roughly $ 2.7 billion per year. This comes with the added benefits of diverting 1.87 million tonnes of waste from landfills, reducing GHG emissions by 4.85 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, saving 446 billion gallons of water. and create 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 food entrepreneurs, investors and multinationals. Over the past few years, a line of innovative products has made its way onto retail shelves that include recycled ingredients, such as:
While adding value to food waste streams may seem like a new phenomenon, it is only the latest example of waste to value being converted in the food system. In fact, farmers and food producers have generated innovative valuation solutions throughout history. Of drink cheese whey as a health tonic in ancient Greece to the invention of baby carrots in the 80s, we have been upcycling for millennia. However, despite these ancient roots, the upcycling movement has undeniably gained new energy and momentum in recent years – not least by being identified as a Top 10 food trend in 2021 by Whole Foods Markets. In addition, where the former waste recovery producers generally minimized the origins of the waste of their products, the new generation of waste recovery producers emphasize this as a sign of honor.
This hub in the messaging of 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 with my own eyes while advising a team of students as they developed a new food product derived from the pulp of fruits and vegetables from a local juicer. They finally managed to win an award from our annual UC Davis event competition, not only because their product tasted great, but also because they had the fascinating history of upcycling in their recipe.
The upcycled food business community now has a chance to tell this story widely to consumers through the Upcycled certification standard, on which I had a contribution as a member of the Upcycle Foods standards committee. Launched in 2021, the standard establishes clear criteria for producers to affix a label to the packaging of their product, which quickly and clearly signals the consumer that a food product is a certified recycled product. As a result, food producers are telling 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.
Are you ready for your banana peel sandwich?