Upcycled Food – Sustainability Trend or Hype?

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Upcycled food is a new commercial trend – but what does it really mean? Is it safe? And is it truly sustainable? Let’s take a look…

One of the more interesting sustainability trends that has surfaced in recent years is upcycled food. While it sounds a bit odd, upcycled food is just what it sounds like: reusing foods that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill to create new food products.

While the term “upcycling” may be new, when it comes down to it, humans have been upcycling food for thousands of years! Your ancestors certainly did it – and your grandma probably did too. If you’ve ever made bread crumbs out of stale bread, turned overripe bananas into banana bread, or made your own soup stock from bones or vegetable scraps, you’ve upcycled food! However, what we’re talking about here is the recent trend in upcycling food on a commercial scale.

This brings up a few questions: are upcycled foods safe to eat? Are they actually edible and healthy? And how much impact does upcycling food waste really have on the planet? Let’s take a closer look…

What Foods Can Be Upcycled?

First of all, which types of food are being upcycled? There are many different ingredients that can be upcycled – from “ugly” produce, to leftover food scraps (think vegetable peels, apple cores, etc.), to food processing byproducts. Each of these may be used in different ways.

For example, a tomato that isn’t perfect enough to sell to consumers may still be great for turning into sauce, and “ugly” fruits can simply be turned into dried fruit snacks. Many different food scraps can be used in soups, broths, and sauces. And processing byproducts such as fruit or vegetable fiber (left over after juicing) can be added to other foods for extra dietary fiber, or added to vegetable patties or baked goods.

The Upcycled Food Association has taken the lead in this space by creating a certification label for products that are made using upcycled food ingredients.

This interesting article from FoodRevolution.org explains:

…As the label gains public awareness and acceptance, it’s hoped that consumers will embrace upcycled products by choosing them instead of non-upcycled competitors.

Currently, there are three Upcycled Certified types: Ingredient, Product, and Minimal Content. The “Upcycled Ingredients” label is reserved for ingredients that would otherwise not have gone to human use or consumption, and consist of at least 95% upcycled inputs. You probably won’t see this certification on a consumer product; rather, companies sell these certified ingredients to other companies to use in new products.

An example of a certified upcycled ingredient is FruitSmart, which consists of upcycled fruit juices, purees, concentrates, essences, fibers, seeds, seed oils, and seed powders. Another is SunOpta, which makes a powered oat protein ingredient called OatGold from byproducts of oat milk production.

Once a product hits the market, it may be eligible for one of the other two upcycled certified labels: Product and Minimal Content. Foods, menu items, beverages, supplements, and pet foods, as well as cosmetic, personal care, and household cleaning products can wear the Upcycled Certified Product label if at least 10% of their ingredients are upcycled.


The third certification type, Minimal Content, indicates products with upcycled ingredient content of less than 10%.

Upcycled Foods FAQ

So back to our original questions: is upcycled food safe?

In terms of safety, upcycled certified foods should be fine. The Upcycled Certified label has premarket approval by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture. The FSIS provides labeling ingredients guidance and inspection methods to protect consumers from misbranding and unsafe food.

The FSIS also requires a third-party supply chain audit to ensure that foods come from a verified source. In this case, verification is performed by Where Food Comes From, which also certifies products for the Non-GMO Project, among others.

As for sustainability, the jury is still out:

The upcycled food certification process is still in its infancy, so it’s hard to say what the true impact is on cutting emissions or reducing food waste. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that if food waste were its own country (can you imagine how hard it would be for their tourist industry to attract visitors?), it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses.

However, there is promising reason to think that upcycling food can have a positive impact on the environment:

First, organic matter in landfills releases potent greenhouse gasses, including methane. Keeping these food ingredients out of landfills means that we’re recycling the carbon they contain, which can help mitigate climate chaos. In the US, at least eight states have laws requiring some reprocessing of food waste.

Second, food that’s upcycled replaces new food that would have to be grown, shipped, and processed. Decreasing food waste decreases resource waste, including inefficient use of land and water, and reduces carbon emissions from growing, transporting, and disposing of food. Upcycling can allow our food system to get “more” out of “less” by creating two or more products out of resources that formerly produced just one.

Third, those thrown-away foods are often full of nutrients. Upcycling can harness the nutritional value of by-products that would otherwise have gone to waste.

While you may not see a lot of upcycled foods on grocery store shelves just yet, this will certainly be an interesting trend to watch in the years ahead as more people become more aware of the impact of food waste on the environment, and look for more sustainable solutions. In the meantime, you can do your own part by “upcycling” foods at home! Check out FoodRevolution.org for some helpful ideas and recipes to get you started.


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