Upcycling on the upswing as advocates formally define the emerging category

KANSAS CITY – Momentum is building behind the upcycled food and ingredient movement as the recently formed Upcycled Food Association (UFA) has defined the concept and its members are set to promote its benefits to consumers. At a time when market researchers say consumers are concerned about reducing food waste, embracing sustainability and yearning for a story about their food, upcycling offers a positive tale about environmental health and consumer well-being.

Upcyclers are food and ingredient manufacturers that incorporate food waste into products. Research has shown consumers are interested in upcycled foods. A 2019 study by the market researcher Future Market Insights placed the value of food and ingredients produced using previously wasted byproducts to be more than $46 billion, with a predicted 5% compound annual growth rate.

Finding uses for “ugly produce,” fruits and vegetables primarily sold at retail that do not meet consumer expectations and are often discarded, is a forerunner of the upcycling movement. Now entrepreneurs are researching and investing in the potential of numerous upcycled ingredients, including spent grains from beer brewing; okara, a byproduct of soymilk processing; coffee cherry pulp; crop production leftovers such as straw, leaves and shells; salmon skin; avocado leaves; and many others.

The UFA, to its credit, is establishing a foundation from which members competing in the category may differentiate and more easily promote the attributes of upcycling. The group published a formal definition of upcycled food in May. The definition states “upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”

“It sounds obvious,” said Ben Gray, chief operations officer of the UFA, when the definition was published. “But the process of arriving at the definition is just as important as the definition itself. This definition was created for the same reasons the Upcycled Food Association was created: to unify the industry, clarify the vision, and serve as a center of gravity for the upcycled movement.”

In July, the UFA said it is making progress toward developing a certification program that will allow qualified products to carry a seal identifying them as upcycled or containing upcycled ingredients. A committee convened by the group is expected to complete its work in time for products on the market to carry the certification seal during the first half of 2021.

There should be no illusions about the challenges upcycled food and beverage manufacturers will face as they work to scale and expand their businesses, but there is a successful precedent — whey. Once a waste stream of industrial cheese processing, the market for whey and whey protein has scaled successfully and is forecast to generate sales of approximately $11.3 billion by 2025, according to BCC Research.

Market forces will determine the viability of newer upcycled foods and ingredients. Many consumers have expressed concerns about food waste and an interest in products and companies that promote environmental sustainability. Now the market will see how consumers respond as more products are introduced featuring those attributes. 

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