Most people are aware that a significant amount of food gets thrown away each year, but here are some chilling statistics that put the issue into perspective:
- One-third of all food each year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – is wasted
- If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest polluting nation in the world
- Food waste generates the same amount of greenhouse-gas emissions as 37 million cars
Food waste occurs at all levels, from imperfect produce or surplus crops in farms, to unwanted food left on the shelves of retail stores, to our homes where food goes beyond its use-by date and is thrown away. It all contributes to a global problem, causing up to 14% of the food produced to be lost between harvest and retail; a problem already well targeted by the UN, which has laid down a goal to halve per-capita global food waste by 2030.
To tackle this challenge, one solution gaining ground is upcycling; upcycled foods are defined by the Upcycled Food Association as foods that ‘use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment’. In simple terms, upcycling creates new and high-quality products from otherwise wasted ingredients. When you consider that the food-waste business is worth an estimated $46.7 billion, with an expected growth rate of 5% over the next decade, it’s clear why startups and established companies are keen to get involved.
What’s driving the upcycling trend? The good news is that it’s both consumers and businesses. A consumer survey revealed that nearly four out of five people (78%) ‘always or sometimes’ think about food waste while eating at home; three-quarters do so while grocery shopping; and 61% do so when eating out.
The survey also found that those aged 44 and under are the most likely to think about food waste in all three situations, with waste reduction and money spent as the two key factors.
From the industry side, a growing number of food companies and startups are committed to ‘circular’ sustainable practices, whereby resources are reused and kept in use for as long as possible — an attitude Brinc has long supported, with its plan to invest in 1,000+ climate-conscious startups over the next five years.
Food for thought
The upcycled food movement is gathering pace, with startups inventing ever-more-resourceful ways to turn unwanted food into something desirable. Barnana, for example, upcycles bananas that aren’t considered attractive enough to sit on retailers’ shelves. The company has already upcycled more than 100 million fruit, turning them into healthy snack packs rich in potassium.
The bakery sector is ripe for upcycled products, too, with companies making flour from alternative gluten-free sources. One brand, Renewal Mill, uses by-products of milk production, including pulp from soybeans, oats and almonds, and turns them into fiber- and protein-rich flours, cookie and brownie mixes.
Additionally, condiment specialist, Sir Kensington’s has dipped into the vegan-mayo market with an egg-free mayonnaise made with aquafaba, a natural egg substitute made with the liquid left over from cooking chickpeas.
Drinks companies have also made their mark in the upcycling market. WTRMLN WTR uses ‘discarded’ watermelons — those with blemishes, and unable to be sold on to retailers — to make nutrient-packed beverages, while one of our Brinc portfolio companies, Caskai, takes the most nutritious part of the coffee fruit — the dried husk, or cascara — and turns it into sparkling infusion drinks that are low in sugar and caffeine.
All wrapped up
It’s not just ingredients that are being upcycled – startups are leading the way with food packaging, too. The Magical Mushroom Company uses waste products from hemp, corn and timber production and combines them with mushroom-based mycelium to make sustainable, compostable product-packaging alternatives to polystyrene.
Israeli food-tech start-up W-Cycle is on a mission to create a ‘plastic-free world’ – its 100% compostable packaging can withstand temperatures from -40˚C up to 270˚C. Made from wood pulp and sugar-cane waste, its SupraPulp product is liquid and oil-resistant and can be used to house hot or greasy foods.
Historically, retailers have refused to accept food from suppliers if they have blemishes or are the wrong shape and size, but consumers are coming around the idea of buying ‘imperfect’ products, which will ultimately only help to reduce the food-waste problem.
A survey from The Harris Poll showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents would be comfortable eating ‘ugly produce’, and companies such as Full Harvest and Imperfect Foods are taking advantage by offering a marketplace for such items. Danish-based start-up Too Good To Go is making waves in the US with its anti-waste food app which connects businesses with surplus food to local consumers.
Of all the ways to tackle food waste, upcycling has definitely the most potential, from both a food and packaging point of view. The opportunities for startups to develop new products and innovative technologies to make use of these side-streams are many – with the added bonus that the right upcycled products not only could lead to environmental benefits, but could be worth significantly more than in the original condition.
Elena Sofia Inguglia, Brinc Food Mentor & Technical Head
Elena is an internationally trained food scientist with a MSc. in Microbiology and a PhD in Food Technology. Her major areas of expertise are the application and optimization of novel processing technologies — e.g. high-pressure processing, pulse electric field — for food safety and preservation. She is also experienced in working with functional and novel clean label ingredients — specifically for salt/fat reduction, removal of additives and formulation of protein-rich foods. She is happy to discuss and provide support around food processing, product development, sensory & quality aspects of food as well as food safety, shelf-life stability and use of novel ingredients.
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