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Upcycling, the practise of using leftover, used, or rejected materials to make new products, is well established in fashion and furniture design. It’s now also a trend in food production, driving a fast growing industry in Europe and the US.
The value of America’s upcycled food market was estimated at almost $47bn in 2019. The number of US companies specialising in upcycled food jumped from just 11 in 2011 to 64 in 2017, and by 2022 more than 140 groceries certified as upcycled were available to shoppers in store and online.
Small-scale food upcycling has been around for a long time. Butchers using offcuts to make sausages, and fruit growers sending imperfect produce to manufacturers of jam or snack bars are typical examples. But the concept is expanding as sustainability and waste reduction become more of a priority for companies focused on climate goals, like those set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Businesses are diversifying and exploring new ways to transform traditionally low value byproducts into nutritious, high-value food. Multinational beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is building two facilities in the US and Belgium for a total of $200mn to process spent barley previously discarded or fed to cattle. Protein and fibre extracted from the recovered grain will be sold on to established companies like Nestlé, which plans to transform it into dietary supplements.
Upcycling has also inspired a range of successful start-ups. Founded in San Francisco in 2013, Regrained has attracted millions of dollars in funding by turning brewing leftovers into flower, snack puffs, and pasta. Another Californian company, Oakland-based Renewal Mill, grinds out flour, biscuits, and baking mixes from okara, a pulpy, protein-rich leftover from plant-based milk and tofu production.
Corporate ingenuity is finding ways to create edibles from an array of food industry scraps, including avocado seeds. However, delivering a successful upcycled product demands a range of skills and technical capabilities, according to a 2020 report from consultancy, Oakland Innovation. Another problem is the potential environmental cost of processing and transport, but that may be offset by the reduction in food waste. Upcycling what we would once have thrown out is one way to help feed the world more efficiently and sustainably.