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A Beginner’s Guide To The Upcycled Food Movement

by Daniel Kurzrock

 

Provide me a forum, and I’ll gladly wax on about how upcycling is a revolution obsessed with creatively challenging tradition. I’ll argue that we should always hold our food system subject to improvement regarding the way in which we value resources. That we can (and should!) elevate our standards to always seek “best” use in times of increasing constraints. 

As my grandfather never hesitated to point out though, the practice of upcycling is traditional wisdom with a trendy rebrand. He reminds me that it has always made both dollars and sense for food producers to do more with less. That waste is money, and nobody at the heads of both the kitchen and boardroom tables likes wasting money. This is why we have broth (from bones), “baby” carrots (from full size carrots too ugly to sell as is), whey protein (from cheese’s byproduct), and less savory examples like hot dogs (from everything but the squeal!). 

 

Above: Example WWII Era “Time for a Total War on Food Waste” Campaign

Somewhere along the whey though (forgive the pun), the system got inverted. Instead of canning tomatoes to preserve their shelf-life, we started growing tomatoes specifically for the purpose of canning. Now there are dairy processors whose primary product is protein powder, and byproduct is cheese. 

If you ask me, it’s not the tactics, but rather the philosophy that makes “upcycling” a relevant and compelling movement. When done authentically, upcycling is environmentalism that happens to be profitable. Profit as the means, protecting our planet’s precious resources is the end. 

 

With this in mind, we’ve made it our mission at ReGrained to champion Upcycled Food as a paragon for sustainable consumption. We are proud to be among the first to tout the model, and to have coined the phrase “Edible Upcycling,” to distinguish rescuing overlooked and undervalued foods from the terms origins in hardgoods (from crafting used bicycle tubes into wallets to sinking decommissioned subway cars to become artificial reefs). Recently, the “Upcycled Food” industry was valued as a $46.7B prize, an impressive sum considering its nascency, but one we would argue is underestimated. 

Above: UFA Logo, modified from our own upcycled logo and donated.
 

Helping to found the newly minted non-profit Upcycled Food Association takes our commitment to the cause to the next level. When Turner Wyatt, the CEO, approached me with the concept, I was on board before you could say “circular food systems. It felt like fate. In 2016, I authored a thesis on cross-sectoral strategies for supporting the development of upcycled markets to fight food waste for my Sustainable MBA—forming a trade association was a top tactic. Barnana were already onboard, soon to be joined by our other friends and peers at Renewal Mill, Imperfect Foods, and more. We’re now coming up on 100 members globally, and we’re only just getting started. 

The central objective of the Upcycled Food Association is to further the development of markets for upcycled food products that elevate food that would otherwise be wasted to higher uses, and have tangible benefits to the environment and society. In practice, this includes activities such as collectively improving our messaging so that the value of consuming food that would have otherwise gone to lower uses (waste) is understood by our customer….without “yucking” their yum. 

At ReGrained, we have tested countless ways to communicate to consumers the value of upcycling food from the catchy (albeit confusing) “Eat Beer” hook (still miss it) to the new-ish Upcycled logo we debuted in 2019 (a modified version of which we donated as the association’s logo).

Above: Who remembers Eat Beer?

To upcycle effectively requires educating the market, and we strive to lead by example. From our early days at farmers markets, to in-store product demonstrations, record-breaking crowdfunding campaigns, social media, the TEDx stage, speaking at conferences, on podcasts, to press, bloggers, influencers, the universe of social media, and frankly, to anyone who would listen…we have always held our messaging subject to improvement.

Above: Upcycled logo featured on packaging bottom, center  

Thanks to the NRDC, ReFED, and other champions’ collective efforts to mainstream the food waste problem and opportunities, our movement is no longer just an esoteric campaign of champions—it has officially entered the global zeitgeist. In Washington DC, efforts have been encouragingly bipartisan, although practical policy solutions are still needed. 

Above: Breeding enthusiasm for upcycling at the USDA’s 96th Agricultural Outlook Forum

As an industry, innovation has been accelerating in exciting ways. Upcycling food is a business model that transforms “waste” into value, or more crudely put, trash into cash. We’ve seen brands emerge to seize the opportunity of novel supply chains, as well as the typical crop of “me-too” business models that a healthy market can support. 

As an organization, our mission is clear: build a food system in which all food reaches its best use. We cannot and do not want to do that alone! Whether you are a food producer that could use upcycled ingredients in your products, a product developer looking for an innovative edge, an investor interested in tracking the space, a retailer open to merchandising upcycled products, or an entirely different type of stakeholder—we want you in. 

Next up we will be developing standards, a certification process, and a number of other exciting initiatives that we’ll be sure to keep you posted out. 

For now though, we hope the upcycling movement provides a bright spot on what can feel like bleak and uncertain times. 

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