What Is Upcycled Food?

Upcycling: A zero waste philosophy of creatively reusing byproducts and unlocking their highest value, finding “best” use, and improving the way we value resources, which, like recycling, enables us to do more with less, going beyond reuse

Examples: Turning an old climbing rope into a new dog leash, empty plastic bottles into a fleece sweater, or used cigarette butts into a brick

How I created “edible upcycling”:

During our undergrad years at UCLA in the early 2010s, we found the perfect loophole to the legal drinking age: brewing our own beer.

During this time, I coined the term “edible upcycling,” a way of upcycling the “spent” grain leftover from my homebrewing to use as an ingredient in bread. I would sell these loaves of bread and use the proceeds to buy the ingredients to make more beer.

Photo courtesy of ReGrained

While many homebrewers and large breweries see the leftover byproducts as “spent” just because they can’t be used to make more beer, to me they’re actually rendered “super” through the process. That's because the brewing process removed the sugar from the soaked grains and left behind dietary fiber, protein, prebiotics, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

With no access to compost, tossing the grains felt wasteful, so I got creative and started a company, ReGrained. We learned breweries generate tons of this grain every batch, but they don’t have great options for offloading it, beyond animal feed as a best case.

Photo courtesy of ReGrained

Why is upcycled food food so important?

I was blown away to learn that over 90 percent of the water footprint of beer is in the grain supply chain and that each pound of malt (what it takes to make a six-pack) uses over 300 gallons of water — the equivalent to a two-hour shower.

The environmental impact of food waste is massive. If food waste were a country, it would rank third after the United States and China in terms of impact on global warming, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

When food ends up in landfills, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Because of a lack of available oxygen, food doesn’t break down in landfills in the same way that it would in nature or in a compost bin.

How can we make a difference?

We can all do our part by minimizing the amount of food we buy so less is wasted — and by making sure we’re composting. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 31 percent of food waste occurs in the home, consumer-facing businesses account for at least 10 percent of waste. So we all have a part to play in being a part of the solution.

At ReGrained, we developed patented technology, SuperGrain+, to create a new supply chain for upcycled flour. We sell this flour to other companies and also use it in our own line of branded products such as nutrition bars and puffed chips.

The good news is that people working toward a solution have now expanded beyond just our operation. Now in grocery stores you can find not only ReGrained products but a growing selection of upcycled products in the market such as Barnana (cosmetically imperfect bananas and plantain snacks), Renewal Mill (cookies and flour from okara, tofu production’s byproduct), and Toast Ale (beer made from surplus bread).

In other words, what began as an underage experiment in recreational entrepreneurship has blossomed into a food movement.

Eating upcycled is an easy and effective way to participate in the fight against food waste through a food movement that strives to identify and elevate every overlooked and underutilized ingredient stream hiding in plain sight.

When done well, upcycled food tastes great (nobody wants a product that just tastes like a good idea) and delivers on nutrition, functionality, and sustainability. Upcycling is a movement that makes both dollars and sense, so we are seeing it earn some well-deserved traction.

Snacking more sustainably by eating upcycled is one small action you can take to better align the food you eat with the planet you love. We hope it also inspires you to take a look in your own kitchen and improve your own impact. Eat up!

Dan Kurzrock is the co-founder and "Chief Grain Officer" of ReGrained and founding Executive Board Member of the Upcycled Food Association. ReGrained is an ingredient platform and packaged foods innovator that specializes in upcycling nutritious food streams. Learn more: regrained.com

A version of this story originally ran in Issue 09 of the Goodnewspaper in February 2020. The Goodnewspaper is our monthly print newspaper filled with good news.
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