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How ‘upcycling’ discarded ingredients into food is gaining momentum

“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.

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  • Kaitlin Mogentale:

    Can we taste it?

  • Claire Schlemme:

    Yeah, you can taste it!

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Claire Schlemme:

    Oh it's really getting wet!

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So why would someone want to eat snacks with okara in it?

  • Claire Schlemme:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So you're telling me the most nutritious part of the plant usually just gets tossed away?

  • Minh Tsai:

    Absolutely. One of the most nutritious parts of the plant. And we know fiber is really important. It's actually not fully utilized.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    In Vietnam, Minh Tsai grew up eating okara. There they use it to make vegetable pancakes.

  • Minh Tsai:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Claire Schlemme:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    What do we have here?

  • Kaitlin Mogentale:

    Looks like we've got some apple, we've got some kale in there, some leftover celery stalk.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    It's leftover pulp from cold-pressed juice companies and Mogentale mixes that with the okara to make these chips.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    So, what volume of the produce is actually pulp?

  • Kaitlin Mogentale:

    Anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the actual produce that's processed becomes pulp.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    In some cities there are juice bars on almost every corner, that adds up to a lot of pulp.

  • Kaitlin Mogentale:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And that struggle plays out throughout the food industry, but it's a struggle that can translate into profits for upcycling start-ups.

  • Caue Suplicy:

    We're making delicious food out of bananas that normally go to waste.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Kaitlin Mogentale:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    And these upcycling companies hope to win over customers –and make a profit—by telling their stories.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    Cat, tell us about yours and what's in it.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    Deutsch says it's not just start-ups interested in upcycling.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    We've seen a big increase in multinationals who have been interested in upcycling and greening their own practices.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    Think of things like, think Lunchables, things that you can stack, put together.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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.

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    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".

  • Jonathan Deutsch:

    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.

  • Allison Aubrey:

    But despite Deutsch's optimism, upcycling start-ups, like everyone else face uncertain economic times ahead.

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