For decades world hunger was declining, but according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, it’s on the rise again. This is especially alarming given that one in ten people globally don’t have access to enough food. But it’s not just a problem in developing countries. In the United States, millions of people face consistent hunger.
Food insecurity is systemic, and very complex. But with this caveat in mind, one part of the challenge is food waste. In the United States, food waste makes up around 30 to 40 percent of our food supply.
One way organizations are trying to help reduce food waste is by upcycling food. This means using ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption. Some of this food is surplus, both on institutional and consumer levels, and some is atypical, otherwise known as “ugly” produce that doesn’t meet grocery store standards. It can also come in the form of by-products that are made when producing other foods.
Not only does upcycling help alleviate food insecurity—approximately $1 trillion of food is lost or wasted every year —and reversing this trend would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people , more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe—but it also helps to promote the importance of reducing food waste across the entire food chain.
For these reasons, some innovative companies in the plant-based food movement are embracing upcycling.
Plant-based tech company Outcast Foods, for example, turns surplus fruit and vegetables from farmers, grocers ,and food manufactures into vegan protein powders and vitamins. It hopes to help inspire others to find new ways to turn food waste into sustainable nutrition – and soon.
One challenge for Outcast was making the produce as healthy as it would be if it were freshly picked. To help solve this, it developed technology that ensures fruit and vegetables keep their nutrients intact. But Outcast Foods doesn’t want to hoard the fruits of its labor.
“We don’t want to be the only company that uses our technology,” says Darren Burke, Outcast’s co-founder and chief executive. “We developed it with industry in mind and our hope is to make our process a global movement.”
The fruit and vegetable powders that go into its products are also sold to other companies for their own food products.
“This helps other companies become more sustainable,” Burke says.
For Karma Nuts, which sells skin-on cashew nuts, the potential to make improvements along its supply chain is a global opportunity.
Cashews are mostly grown in regions such as West Africa, India, and South-East Asia.
“The cashew industry supports the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers, processing workers and critically supports the local economies,” says founder Ganesh Nair. “Every incremental value addition and upcycling we can generate from a cashew tree would help in increasing demand and ultimately better yields and economic benefits for the entire value chain.”
Nair says food upcycling is in its early stages, but as society becomes more aware of the urgent need to tackle the global food crises, he expects more brands and food companies to become part of the upcycling solution.
Improving food insecurity and encouraging more ethical behavior relies on educating consumers on the benefits of cutting down on food waste and consuming upcycled produce. This starts with educating people about specific products – and this isn’t always an easy job.
Having a cashew with its skin on, he says, is “an understandably unfamiliar appearance for most consumers, even though they may intuitively understand the nutritional benefits. We have to take time to explain what a “skin-on” wrapped cashew is, and why it is better for the environment and for nutrition. Most people don’t know that cashews even have skins, so there is a bit of education required from us to help get people onboard.”
There’s also a need to educate people on the bigger picture, Burke argues.
“Disrupting the food-waste pipeline is extremely important to the environment but it’s also getting people to think differently about food and how we treat it,” he says. “If we can educate the public about upcycling and food securities, then people may be more aware of what they’re throwing out.”
But Nair says consumers are already becoming focused on the supply chains behind the food they eat.
“People understand that we need to do our parts to fix problems in the food system, and want to help support companies that are doing the right thing,” he says.
Hannah Barnstable, founder of Seven Sundays, a grain free, sunflower protein cereal company, is optimistic about public awareness of upcycled food.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of how their food preferences impact the environment,” she says. “I would expect upcycling to grow along with other food trends like non-GMO and using regenerative ingredients.”
Companies already operating in the nascent food upcycling sector are open about the other challenges operating in this space it presents.
“The first challenge for us at Karma Nuts was in bringing the product to life,” Nair says. “Cashew skins naturally have tannins that are bitter and needed to be removed but also have other very high levels of antioxidant phytonutrients that we wanted to preserve. It took years of research, development and iteration for our team to perfect the ‘skin-on’ wrapped cashew that we have today, through a completely chemical-free processes.”
For Seven Sundays, one of the main challenges lies in supplier relationships and processing upcycled ingredients.
“Our new grain-free cereal is made with an upcycled sunflower protein,” Barnstable says. “The sunflower seed protein is the byproduct of sunflower oil production. We work with a cold-pressed sunflower oil producer to filter and refine with previously wasted sunflower meal leftover after the oil is removed. There’s a lot of up-front work to get this ingredient ready for larger scale production. For example, consistency, flavor and nutritional make-up all need to be dialed in.”
Food upcycling companies can, at least, ride on the popularity of plant-based food and the successes of many start-ups in this space. Both plant-based companies and upcycling companies share many values – so it makes sense they’d share customers, too.
“There’s definitely overlap between plant-based and upcycled,” Barnstable says. “Much of the plant-based movement is driven by social and environmentally conscious consumers.”
Nair says consuming upcycled food is the next logical step following the plant-based movement.
“People who care about the health of the world generally also take care of their own bodies. Many people are moving to more plant-based diets to help lower their carbon footprints, in addition to the health benefits,” he says.
Burke says the plant-based space is a huge part of its community.
“Outcast can brighten any diet from plant-based, vegetarian, flexitarian [to] any other diet on the spectrum. It helps that we are doing something incredibly impactful for the planet and that our products taste amazing. We overlap with whatever space wants us.”
As a relatively niche industry, food upcycling still has a long way to go, and teething issues it needs to overcome, before it becomes as pervasive and popular as plant-based innovations, like plant-based burgers and nuggets. But with the potential to help alleviate food security and global hunger, upcycled products are a no-brainer for consumers who already make food choices with ethics in mind.