What Is Upcycled Food?

upcycled food

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Food waste is a big issue for climate activists since food production is a heavy contributor to climate change. Up to 40% of all food ends up in the trash in the United States, whether at the farm, during transport, at the grocery store, or at home. It's becoming a talked-about issue for companies as well as home cooks, since wasting food hurts the bottom line—throwing out food is like throwing away money. One of many solutions to the food waste problem is upcycled food.

What Is Upcycled Food?

Upcycled food is food that would normally be thrown away or used as animal feed but is instead repurposed to make a new food product. Manufacturing byproducts, such as the fruit and vegetable pulp leftover from juicing, are a common upcycled food, as are imperfect produce that can't be sold in stores and discarded elements of foods that are considered inedible, such as seeds and peels. On an industrial scale, some companies are using the waste from their own products to make new, upcycled products, while other companies are buying and selling upcycled foods.

Why Upcycle?

Upcycled foods are becoming more popular with small and large food brands. There are a few good reasons for making upcycled foods:

  • It's good for the environment. The less food that is wasted, the smaller the carbon footprint for that particular product. Industrial-scale food takes an incredible amount of resources to produce, from water to fertilizer to storage and transportation. But the environmental cost doesn't stop there—food waste typically ends up in a landfill, producing greenhouse gases.
  • It's cost-effective. Upcycling foods turns them from waste that has zero monetary value (and can actually cost money since it must be disposed of) into a valuable ingredient. This ingredient can be used in that company's products or sold to another company. For the buying company, upcycled food is typically much cheaper than purchasing raw products.
  • It's good PR. The public has become more and more concerned about food waste over the last several years as concern over climate change has heightened. Taking proactive steps like offering products using upcycled foods can make a company more attractive to shoppers.

Examples of Upcycled Foods

Upcycled foods are used in a variety of creative ways and may already be present in products you know and love. Here are just some examples of how upcycled foods are being used:

  • Grounded Foods uses imperfect cauliflower (veggies that are cosmetically imperfect and can't be sold at the grocery store) along with hemp seeds to make vegan cheeses.
  • Renewal Mill takes the byproduct from nut and soy milk and mills it into healthy flours.
  • Shameless Pets upcycles fruits and vegetables into cat and dog treats.
  • Wheyward Spirit turns whey, a byproduct of producing yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products, into a clear, vodka-like liquor.
  • Imperfect Foods has a line of a number of upcycled products, including chocolate covered pretzels made from broken pieces along the factory line.
  • Reveal makes a line of brewed beverages (similar to tea) using avocado seeds.

How to Use Upcycled Foods at Home

While upcycled foods are taking the commercial food world by storm, you can also incorporate them into your home cooking to help reduce your waste. Instead of mindlessly tossing things in the trash, look at your food waste in a whole new way.

  • Collect onion and garlic peels and scraps from carrots, celery, bell peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, and more and throw them in a freezer bag. Toss any chicken, beef, or pork bones in there, too, and when the bag is full, transform the scraps into full-flavored meat or vegetable broth. Broth freezes great and can be used in soups, stews, grains, sauces, and more.
  • Save the rind of melons and make pickles
  • Use carrot peels to make carrot cake or muffins.
  • Use carrot tops or radish greens to make pesto.
  • After making almond milk, slowly dry out the leftover ground nuts in the oven and use to make almond flour.
  • Dry out brewed coffee grounds and use them in a spice rub for meat or to flavor baked goods like cookies.
  • Turn lemon and orange peels into candied citrus.
  • Dry apple peels for a tasty snack or use to brew herbal tea.
  • Use stale bread to make croutons or breadcrumbs.
  • Save the liquid from a can of chickpeas (also known as aquafaba) and use it as a substitute for eggs in vegan baking. You can even use it to make meringue.