Show up at the grocery store early on a Monday after a busy shopping weekend and you are likely to find bins of rejected produce — blemished, deformed, spotted, bruised. Maybe a fly or two buzzing around. The dregs. All deemed too ugly for purchase by shoppers who only have eyes for perfection. It’s nationwide produce prejudice. And you can bet much of those beauty-contest runner-ups are headed for trash dumps.
Globally, the financial cost of food waste is estimated at $1 trillion annually.
But what if there were an alternative? Mull this over. Would you be up for eating a delightful meal made — in part — out of leftover agricultural trash that typically ends up in incinerators or landfills? Sounds … unappealing? Disgusting? Give you the heebie-jeebies?
Well, it’s becoming a real thing in the food world. Upcycling. Essentially, it means no longer putting agricultural leftovers in the trash and into incinerators and landfills, but back on our plates.
If you are like most people, you probably haven’t heard of it. A Food and Nutrition Sciences journal study conducted in 2021 showed just 10% of consumers could define upcycling.
The idea is simple. Take food that picky consumers would give a hard pass — like misshapen, bruised, soft veggies and fruit, leftover pulp from making juice, edible leaves and stems — as well as leftovers in manufacturing processed foods and turn them into appealing products. The industry is exploding.
Barvocado takes upcycled avocado seeds and turns them into energy bars. Barnana takes beat-up bananas and turns them into snacks. Caju Love turns leftovers from Brazil’s cashew nut industry into “fruit meat.”
All that is just the tip of the iceberg. Allied Market Research valued the worldwide food upcycling market two years ago at $53.7 billion and projects market growth to $97 billion by 2031.
You know you’ve arrived when a trade group has been formed to advocate the fledgling food upcycling industry. The Upcycled Food Association has rolled out some snappy black and white labels featuring a green leaf certifying at least 10% of the product by weight contains upcycled ingredients. It’s becoming a movement.
There are plenty of reasons why upcycling is going places. Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about food waste. Not to mention growing awareness of climate change and world hunger.
As it turns out, wasted food globally accounts for about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s some 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. Upycycling certainly can lower the amount of methane and carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere.
But the No. 1 driver — at least recently — is food inflation.
So there’s plenty of financial and philanthropic incentives for companies and consumers to get aboard the growing upcycling bandwagon.
Upcycling aside, there’s also plenty of room for all of us to do our part to reduce food waste. I find it especially ironic that people stew over finding the perfect bunch of bananas and end up tossing two of them into the garbage can.
The not-for-profit ReFED says more than a third of all food grown in the U.S goes uneaten. That’s $408 billion worth of waste taking 4 trillion tons of water to produce. Right now, I’ve probably got some sort of food going bad in the fridge. And you probably do, too. It’s not the kind of confession I want to make. But it’s impossible to do something about the problem if you don’t first name the problem.
So take the Dickey challenge. Together let’s try to go a whole month without wasting any food. It won’t be easy. I’m going to need to be more organized and only buy ingredients I know I’m going to use. Now that summer is on the way, I’ll be hitting farmer’s markets because locally produced food probably won’t go bad as fast. I’ll be cleaning out the fridge and taking inventory. Same with the cupboards.
And I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for upcycled foods at the grocery store. Bon appetit.
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