Consumers today have a lot to chew on while shopping. Considerations for taste, health, and price can be compared against a new ingredient–values. We’re seeing an explosion of these values-driven brands as a prominent community within the natural products movement. These brands have inherent missions that go beyond the organic, non-GMO, better-for-you paradigm. They seek to use food to positively impact our planet and people.
For example, when Sambazon introduced acai as a retail and wholesale brand, it was about more than their novel and delicious super fruit. Their model supports sustainable management of the Amazon, and empowering its cultivators. Kuli Kuli’s brand, a more recent upstart, is built around the little known leafy green moringa, and every sale supports women farmers in West Africa. Patagonia Provisions, a division of the quintessential purpose-driven apparel company, is introducing products like beer made from a novel perennial grain called Kernza that sequesters carbon and prevents soil erosion. Back to the Roots has a range of products from grow-your-own kits to cereals, all united by a theme for food education. These companies have a not-just-for-profit business model, and are organized legally as “Benefit Corporations.”
Within this movement, the issue of food waste has inspired a revolution of its own. Food waste is a solvable problem, and tackling it through business can be the ultimate social and environmental win/win. A cross-sectoral economic study put forth by ReFED in 2016 approximates that 40% of all food grown never reaches the end consumer. Project Draw down, a comprehensive study of hundreds of potential solutions to global warming, ranked reducing food waste the #3 most impactful. RMagazine published a piece on some of these trends in February.
Closing the food loop reduces greenhouse gas emissions, recovers nutrients, and prevents the resources it took to grow the food from being squandered. It also can generates economic value. That same ReFED study assessed solving food waste as an $10 billion opportunity.
There are many companies emerging to capitalize this opportunity, but the rest of this article will focus on trends around “edible upcycling” specifically, a phrase I’ve coined. Upcycling is recycling a material into a higher use. With upcycling, the end of one supply chain is used as the foundation of another. Edible upcycling re imagines food byproducts and surplus as ingredients in delightfully delicious ways.
Now, I must note here that this edible upcycling concept is a new phrase that describes a rather old concept. For example, whey protein is a byproduct of cheese. Meat and vegetable broths are made from bones and scraps. Croutons and breadcrumbs are made from stale bread. The novelty here is that now we’re seeing a movement of mission-driven brands becoming heroes of the concept.
I should know, because, I founded one. My company ReGrained upcycles grain that has already been used to brew beer. My co-founder Jordan and I discovered as home brewers that the brewing process left us with a lot of grain. Vegemite and Marmite are famously made from leftover brewer’s yeast, however, this “spent” grain is the industry’s largest byproduct by volume. On average, it takes a pound of grain to brew a six pack of beer. Billions of six-packs worth of beer are brewed in the U.S. per year. So, ReGrained partners with urban craft breweries to take grain that they would otherwise pay to have hauled away, and process it into an incredibly versatile, shelf-stable, high-protein, high-fiber ingredient. So far, we’ve launched a snack bar, and have a broad range of other applications in development.
We are not alone. There are food and beverages byproducts all throughout the industry that are bringing amazing edible upcycling innovations to market. The rest of this article submits, for your consideration, some of what I believe to be the most inspiring examples of brands that are taking what’s left behind, discarded, or forgotten and putting those underemployed, overlooked, but awesome ingredients back to work.
- Ugly Fruits and Vegetables: Surplus
Billions of pounds of fruits and vegetables are never make it into the food supply chain because of cosmetic imperfections. They are too big, too small, too curvy, too bruised and generally “off-specification.”
Photo Credit: Imperfect Produce
Imperfect Produce purchases this ugly produce and offers farm-to-consumer produce boxes at 30-50% off grocery store prices. This model creates an additional revenue stream for the farmer, and passes savings on to their customers.
Imperfect Produce’s model is value-added redistribution, but upcycling by manufacturers is happening in this space too. Barnana is a packaged foods company that sells organic dehydrated banana snacks–made from the 20% of the banana harvest that is imperfect. Misfit Juicery and Ugly Juice tackle the same opportunity, but instead press the fruits and veggies for juice. FruitCycle and Snact create fruit chips and jerky.
- Coffee: Fruit and Leaves
The world runs on coffee, but only the bean from the plant typically makes it to market.
When coffee fruit itself is harvested, the cherry pulp is stripped from the bean and discarded. This fruit typically rots in big piles at the farm or is discarded into waterways. A market for this fruit has simply not existed.
CoffeeFlour has set out to change that. They dehydrate the cherry at the farm and mill it into a fiber, antioxidant, and potassium rich “flour.” This flour launched through foodservice channels, and is now making it’s way direct to consumer. Starbucks makes a late with it. The ingredient can be bought online, at Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts.
The coffee plant also has leaves to offer. Wize Monkey has built a brand around coffee leaf tea. If they can successfully grow the market for coffee leaf teas, they will open up additional revenue streams for coffee farmers, alleviating the volatile seasonal income for farmers.
The boom in juicing and alternative milks has created a massive wake of pulp left behind from the press. A 16 oz serving of juice creates, on average, 4.5 pounds of pulp. This pulp is high in fiber and phytochemicals.
Pulp can be composted in turn recycled as an agricultural input, but it can also be upcycled. San Francisco’s Forager Project is a juice company that uses it’s own pulp as an ingredient for tortilla-style chips. These “pressed” veggie chips are so popular, that the company is looking at bringing in the pulp from other juiceries to keep up with demand.
I haven’t yet learned of a wholesale upcycled fruit/vegetable pulp flour, but wouldn’t be surprised if one crops up soon. Baldor Food produces a powder made from produce scraps and trimmings. The Renewal Mill makes a flour out of okara (soymilk byproduct), almond meal (from almond milk) and other fibrous byproducts.
- Yogurt: Acid Whey
Unlike the sweet whey left behind from cheese that can upcycled as a protein supplement, yoghurt leaves behind acid whey. Acid whey is more difficult to incorporate in food products. The most exciting example I’ve seen has been brought to market by New York’s Persian-style yoghurt maker The White Mustache. They bottle their acid whey and sell it as a “Probiotic Tonic.”
- Wine and Sake: Pomace and Kasu
When wine grapes are pressed, the seeds and skins, known as pomace are left behind. As with may of the previous examples, these materials typically are composted.
There are several companies that produce a range of flours from pomace. The Whole Vine, an offshoot of Kendall Jackson Winery, is one. In the packaged goods category, Wild California creates fruit, nut, and seed crisps built around a grape flour.
Sake, or Japanese rice wine, has a different byproduct known as kasu. In Japan, Kasu is considered a superfood and is celebrated for having a broad range of applications. I have yet to see an American retail product made with it, but believe some will emerge.
- Chocolate: Cacao Fruit
Similar to coffee, chocolate is made from a bean inside of a fruit. Chocolate’s fruit is a cacao pod. Repurposed Pod has designed a way to recover the pod’s fruit and separate it from the bean that will become chocolate. They then press out the pulp’s and bottle it for sale. The juice has an extraordinary flavor, it reminded me of something between a mango and a lemon.
In conclusion, addressing food waste through entrepreneurship makes dollars and sense. Waste can only exist if markets operate inefficiently or fail to emerge entirely. Forgive the pun, but as edible upcyclers, the opportunity to create or serve efficient markets is ripe.
Daniel Kurzrock is the Co-Founder and Chief Grain Officer of ReGrained. His bike is fueled by eating beer and burritos
Featured Photo: Winnie Wintermeyer