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What the UP?! Why upcycling enables food system transformation




By Daniel Kurzrock and Dr. Lara Ramdin


It may come as no surprise to know that our food system is profoundly inefficient. 


According to ReFED’s Food Waste Monitor analysis, in 2021, the U.S. let a whopping 38% of the 241 million tons in our food supply go uneaten, becoming food waste.  Of this 91 million tonnes of surplus food, within the manufacturing sector, byproduct and production line waste is estimated to account for 12.1M tons per year. 


For those of us working  within food systems, these are facts that we simply cannot ignore – and to meaningfully drive food system transformation, it is incumbent upon us to address food waste innovatively and embrace the tools available.


This is exactly why upcycling – diverting food waste, back to human food systems, elevating it to highest and best value – is one of the many critical solutions needed (including consumer education, portion control, donation education, standardized data labeling, and the list goes on). Eliminating food waste, doesn’t just result in a reduction of greenhouse gasses, but can also unlock latent nutritional value, conserve precious resources, stabilize supply chains, and help to create prosperous food systems along the way. 


It’s important to appreciate that beyond emissions, producing food that goes unsold or uneaten uses 22% of U.S. freshwater and 16% of cropland. Wasted food is also a drain on the economy, since food that goes uneaten still costs money to grow, harvest, transport, cool, prepare, and then ultimately dispose of. ReFED’s analysis also places the value of food that went unsold or uneaten at an eye-watering $444 billion in 2021, approximately 2% of U.S. GDP. In other words, upcycling represents an impactful lever that any food business cannot afford to overlook.



If you still aren’t convinced that upcycling food is paramount to future-proofing food systems, then consider this: the amount of food that goes uneaten is the equivalent of 149 billion meals’ worth of food that could have gone to the 10% of Americans who struggle with food insecurity.


Not only that, the byproducts and often overlooked side streams from manufacturing, in particular, can be incredibly nutrient-dense e.g. brewers spent grain, which provides concentrated fiber and protein, and offers a healthy material to fortify everyday food items like breads, pastas, snacks, and more. Considering that only 5% of men and 9% of women in the USA are eating the recommended daily amount of fiber, this becomes particularly pertinent. Insufficient fiber intake is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, two of the most common diseases in the United States. Unearthing nutritional treasures, like the “superfood” fiber, and making them more accessible can help to lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, maintain a healthy weight and supports microbiome diversity/gut health (which has a number of downstream additional health benefits including supporting immune system and brain health).


Brewer’s “Spent” Grain


Upcycled food isn’t just top-of-mind for those of us working in R&D/innovation. According to Allied Market Research, the upcycled food products market was valued at $53.7 billion in 2021, and is estimated to reach $97 billion by 2031. This demonstrates rising consumer demand and increased awareness of the catastrophic effects of food waste and food insecurity. 


Whilst the upcycled movement is still relatively new, the non-profit Upcycled Food Association’s certification standard is doing critical work to protect the veracity of the claim. Certification is the only way to guarantee authenticity of the supply chain and provide transparency to consumers who are increasingly demanding more information as to where food comes from and how it is made.


Given all of this, the last question we should ask is – are we seeing any progress in the reduction of food waste? As Dana Gunders, ReFED’s Executive Director, puts it “… we’re unfortunately at about the same levels as we were in 2019, making it even more imperative that food system stakeholders really dig in now and make the changes that are necessary to achieve a significant impact……it will take everyone working together to keep the momentum going.”


Obviously, there is still a lot of work to do. Upcycling food will continue as an integral part of product design as we progress in addressing the climate crisis and creating accessible nutrition for a growing global population with limited agricultural land. So, let’s strengthen collaborations, accelerate innovation/science understanding and build a more resilient, equitable, and just food system together – it is after all, simply the right thing to do.



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