Upcycled Food Might Be the Future of Sustainability

Editor’s Note: This story is part of our partnership with Rewire.

By Rachel Crowell

Food waste is a big problem. Here in the U.S. alone, we’re throwing away an estimated $162 billion in food each year, and most of it isn’t even spoiled. Some organizations like Chicago-based Zero Percent rescue restaurant leftovers, saving them from the dumpsters and repurposing them as meals for hungry folks.

But what about ingredients that are relegated to the category of “waste products,” yet are safe and nutritious to eat? These might be edible by-products, like whey, or grocery store fruits and veggies that are considered too old to sell.

For the most part, this stuff gets thrown away. But removing it from the waste stream can take pressure off landfills and find valuable use for food that required resources to grow and harvest.

Players in the food upcycling scene

ReGrained and Rubies in the Rubble are two companies already creating and selling products made with ingredients taken from the waste stream. San Francisco-based ReGrained makes granola bars from spent beer grains. Rubies in the Rubble, located in London, makes relishes and other condiments using surplus fruits and vegetables.

Upcycled Food pbs rewireThey’ve had to figure out how to market food made with ingredients otherwise destined for the dumpster.

“We’ve run into problems with phrasing things like ‘food waste’ or something that’s unwanted,” said ReGrained community manager Cassidy Lundy.

According to a recent study, the language companies use to describe products made this way matters. It makes sense— “food made with waste ingredients” isn’t exactly appetizing.

Researchers at Drexel University tested how consumers responded to nine different names for this type of food: upcycled, recycled, upscaled, rescaled, reprocessed, reclaimed, up-processed, resorted and rescued.

“Upcycled” was the preferred name, followed by “reprocessed,” according to a news release about the study. Another part of the same study showed that consumers might actually see these “value-added surplus foods” as “closer to organic foods as a category, encouraging the possibility of promoting such foods” as a viable, Earth-friendly option.

Rewire connected with Lundy and Jenny Costa, founder and CEO of Rubies in the Rubble, about how their brands encourage people to eat food that might otherwise go to waste.

Eat your beer

ReGrained was founded when Dan Kurzok and Jordan Schwartz were undergraduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, the company’s website explains.

“We started homebrewing and quickly discovered that beer was not the only delicious product of the brewing process,” the website states. “Each batch also created food that looked, smelled, and tasted like hot cereal. We were hauling this grain out to the dumpster until we read about other homebrewers baking bread with it. …

“Further research confirmed our suspicions that beer grain has incredible nutritional value. The sugar had gone into our favorite drink—leaving behind protein, fiber and a whole bunch of micronutrients.”

They baked their first cereal bar in 2013.

Today, ReGrained sources spent beer grains from a few local breweries, Lundy said.

The cereal bar hasn’t been much of a tough sell, partly due to the company’s Bay Area location, Lundy said. For starters, the spent beer grains aren’t an off-putting ingredient for many.

Upcycled Food pbs rewire“We kind of had an ‘in’ with the hipster crowd in a sense,” she said.

Earlier marketing efforts focused on slogans such as “Eat beer.” Sometimes the team would go to Bay Area craft brewing festivals and attract interest by saying “We’re fighting a food war in the craft beer industry,” she said.

Recently, however, the company has refocused their marketing efforts in order to expand their niche market. In particular, they’re trying to appeal to older generations and people who aren’t familiar with craft beer, Lundy said.

Their message is, “while this is something that can be considered waste, it is not to be wasted,” she said.

Righting a food system imbalance

Costa, who has a master’s degree in mathematics, was working for a hedge fund in Mayfair, London, before she founded Rubies in the Rubble, she explained in an email to Rewire.

After reading about food waste one evening in 2010, she “became passionate about the need to create change,” she said. “The food system seemed woefully out of balance and I had to act.”

At 4 a.m. the next day, she went to a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in London. That’s where the idea for Rubies in the Rubble was born.

“Just along from the bustle of the traders,” she saw piles of unsold produce. Among them were snow peas from Kenya, “Mangos from the Philippines, tomatoes from Turkey, cranberries from California… all deemed unworthy and headed straight for the bin,” she said. “What really saddened me was that much of these…were perfectly edible.”

During her childhood in the countryside, whenever her family’s “big, lovely garden” yielded too much produce, her mother used the extra ingredients to make “chutneys, jellies, jams and cordials,” Costa said. Making these condiments requires preservation methods that extend the life of the produce, allowing it to be used rather than thrown away.

That day, Costa left the market with a backpack and bicycle basket full of produce, along with a mission: To make chutneys that would use fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, while also encouraging people to “value food again and use our resources well,” she said.

Today, Rubies in the Rubble gets its upcycled produce in bulk from large-scale farmers across the country.

How do you get people to eat sustainably? Make sure it tastes good, Costa said.

“Our strategy is simply to make the best condiments in town and make sure people are won over by their flavor,” she said. “Then, hopefully it’s a bonus when they hear about the ingredients’ origins.”

This story is part of our partnership between Peril and Promise and Rewire. Rewire is a public media national initiative that offers smart, fresh, original, thought-provoking content that inspires individuals to make their lives better. It’s for people who are getting started in their adult lives—people who want to grow, thrive and build a better world.