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Allison Aubrey, NPR
Allison Aubrey, NPR
“Upcycling,” a new technique of making food using discarded ingredients, is gaining momentum with entrepreneurs looking to create new food categories. Special Correspondent Allison Aubrey and Producer Mary Beth Durkin report on this growing food movement as part of NewsHours “Waste Not, Want Not” series.
Can we taste it?
Yeah, you can taste it!
That white doughy substance that Kaitlin Mogental and Claire Schlemme are tasting is okara. It's a pulpy protein that's leftover after you make tofu.
Oh it's really getting wet!
They're at Hodo, an organic tofu manufacturer in Oakland, California.
Schlemme is the CEO of a food start-up called Renewal Mill, just blocks away.
Renewal Mill pays Hodo to dry out the okara into strips like this. Then it's milled into a flour that Renewal Mill sells.
Kaitlin Mogentale is one of Schlemme's customers, and she's here to see how it's done. Mogentale is CEO of her own start-up called Pulp Pantry, it's located in Los Angeles.
Renewal Mill's flour is an ingredient in a new line of chips that Mogentale's company makes, they're called pulp chips.
So why would someone want to eat snacks with okara in it?
Yeah, so it's full of nutrition, it's about two-thirds fiber and one-third protein. It's kind of a pile of delicious nutrition right here.
Minh Tsai, owns Hodo. It's the third-largest tofu manufacturer in the U.S. Minh says all this okara is typically discarded by most U.S. manufacturers.
So you're telling me the most nutritious part of the plant usually just gets tossed away?
Absolutely. One of the most nutritious parts of the plant. And we know fiber is really important. It's actually not fully utilized.
In Vietnam, Minh Tsai grew up eating okara. There they use it to make vegetable pancakes.
We're doing what we already do in Asia, because it's really for human consumption in Asia, but here, we don't think about it that way.
Mogentale and Schlemme are part of a new wave of entrepreneurs who are thinking that way. They're taking ingredients once considered to be the dregsand transforming them into whole new products. It's called upcycling.
This is even just a sliver of all those fibrous byproducts that come out of food manufacturing every year, in the U.S. and beyond. So it seemed like a tremendous opportunity.
An opportunity because many manufacturers are happy to get rid of their waste, it saves them the hauling fees to throw it out. Mogentale's chips have another upcycled ingredient.
What do we have here?
Looks like we've got some apple, we've got some kale in there, some leftover celery stalk.
It's leftover pulp from cold-pressed juice companies and Mogentale mixes that with the okara to make these chips.
So, what volume of the produce is actually pulp?
Anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the actual produce that's processed becomes pulp.
In some cities there are juice bars on almost every corner, that adds up to a lot of pulp.
We work with juicers that process millions of pounds of pulp a year. And some juiceries that process solely carrots might produce around 80,000 pounds of pulp a day. A lot of people struggle to find the end use for it.
And that struggle plays out throughout the food industry, but it's a struggle that can translate into profits for upcycling start-ups.
We're making delicious food out of bananas that normally go to waste.
One upcycler, now a multimillion-dollar company called Barnana, upcycles damaged bananas into snacks called Banana Bites.
Another, Treasure8, is a start-up with a patented dehydrating process. They rescue damaged produce and turn it into products like beet chips and apple chips by hydrating the produce.
Treasure 8 Video:
Treasure8 is capturing food that is usually lost in growing and processing to create nutritious tasty new snacks.
Treasure8 is a start-up with a patented dehydrating process. It rescues and repurposes damaged produce, then dehydrate it and puts it into products like their naked beet chips and virgin apple chips.
And these companies have plenty of ingredients to work with. A report by the natural resources defense council finds, 40 percent of the food that's grown never makes it to our plates. It estimates that about 125 billion pounds of food get tossed out each year.
And when food ends up in a landfill it emits potent greenhouse gas, methane, which contributes to climate change. A United Nations climate change panel concluded that wasted food is responsible for up to 10 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gases, globally.
The more that we can keep food out of landfills and put it back into feeding people, the more we can not only address issues like the efficiency of our food system and making sure that all of the resources that go into growing our food are actually preserved to their purpose, which is feeding people.
And these upcycling companies hope to win over customers –and make a profit—by telling their stories.
Cat, tell us about yours and what's in it.
Jonathan Deutsch runs the food lab at Drexel University's Food and Hospitality department. He's conducted several studies on consumer attitudes towards upcycled products.
Consumers are actually willing to pay more if they know the product is upcycled, if it's good for the environment, if there's good messaging.
They don't need to know that they had the most beautiful pale pink grocery store tomatoes in their tomato sauce. They don't mind knowing that these were split, and burst, and overripe. That could and should be part of the story.
Deutsch started the food lab back in 2014. It has become a go-to hub for food innovation and these days the focus is on upcycled products.
We're working with a number of companies in that $10 million to $15 million of sales range, not doing a lot of innovation in their own systems. So, they have been asking us to help with new product ideas, ways to divert waste into products.
Deutsch says it's not just start-ups interested in upcycling.
We've seen a big increase in multinationals who have been interested in upcycling and greening their own practices.
Think of things like, think Lunchables, things that you can stack, put together.
In class, Deutsch challenges his students to come up with new ways to combine upcycled ingredients and create new products…
Today Cat Andress is working with a concentrated soup broth that Deutsch helped a company called Matriarch develop. It's made from discarded vegetable bits that the company buys from distributors.
Another student, Anna Wilson, is working with flour made from sunflower seed shells. The flour has a nutty flavor and is a good source of protein. She hopes to perfect a crunchy biscuit out of it.
We're using it for selective eaters. Children on the autism spectrum who prefer crunchy crispy things, often don't get enough protein because if you think about protein, meat, dairy, beans, tofu and peanut butter. A lot of protein sources are mushy.
According to Deutsch upcycling is here to stay. This year an upcycling association with fifty members was formed. Deutsch is working with them and conducting focus groups on what symbols work best with the labeling of these products to brand them as "upcycled".
Within a few years, upcycled won't be this quirky little corner of the food world, but you'll see a major cereal box, or potato chip or a pasta sauce with an upcycle logo. And it will be as normal as seeing an organic logo.
But despite Deutsch's optimism, upcycling start-ups, like everyone else face uncertain economic times ahead.
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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News. Aubrey is a 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards nominee for her broadcast radio coverage of food and nutrition. And, along with her colleagues on The Salt, winner of a 2012 James Beard Award for best food blog. Her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also host of the NPR video series Tiny Desk Kitchen.
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