Upcycled food is now a formally defined term, according to which advocates will encourage broader consumer and industry support for products that help reduce food waste. Upcycling – converting ingredients that are supposed to be wasted into edible food products – has made progress in the movement of alternative foods for several years but has never been officially established.
That Upcycled Food Association announced on May 19 that they defined upcycled foods as foods that “use ingredients that should not be consumed by humans, are purchased and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”
The definition was compiled by a working group organized by the Upcycled Food Association, which included representatives from Harvard University, Drexel University, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, and REFED, a non-profit organization that analyzes solutions for food waste. The Upcycled Food Association is a member-based, non-profit industry that aims to raise the profile of upcycled foods. The association’s working group hopes that such a definition will make it easier for food companies to show how their products contribute to reducing food waste.
This definition is “putting some teeth into the trend of doing the right thing for our food supply, our environment, consumers, and business,” Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at Drexel University and director of the Drexel Food Lab, said in a statement.
Standardizing this term is also the first step towards legislation that supports recycling, according to Emily Broad Leib, Harvard University law professor and director of the Harvard Food and Law Policy Clinic. “Further research can be carried out to identify and utilize policy incentives to support upcycled food as a model for reducing food waste and supporting a more sustainable food system,” he said in a statement.
Upcycling has emerged in recent years as a way for food producers to add value to byproducts or excess ingredients that may have been wasted. Already, food companies like Philabundance and Hidden treasure8 reuse edible ingredients safely, such as excess milk or “bad” vegetables, into nutritious cheese and chips.
“We can take this huge waste stream and we can process it into safe, tasty, healthy products and materials that can work on large scale distribution,” Treasure8 founder Timothy Childs told Food Tank in 2018.
Food waste is a significant outbreak in the food and climate system. That U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30-40 percent of food supplies are lost or wasted – around 133 billion pounds per year. The impact is magnified by water, energy and land resources used to produce food that has never been consumed. Withdrawal Projects, an organization that advocates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has identified a reduction in food waste as solution No. 1 to keep heating below 2ºC.
And research shows that consumers not only understand the term “upcycled” as a different category, but also see added value in it. Based on a benchmark study conducted by the Deutsch team at Drexel University in 2017, customers surveyed looked at “surplus value added food” significantly different from conventional products and preferred the term “upcycled” rather than eight alternatives. The results show that many customers might find the benefits of upcycled foods equivalent to organic certification, which means they value – and may be willing to pay more for – upcycled products that are truly sustainable.
The Upcycled Food Association hopes to use the new definition as a way to signal to consumers that claims for reducing food waste on products are consistent and can be verified. To follow up on the definition, Upcycled Food Association COO Ben Gray said the association plans to launch a product certification program for upcycled food later this year.
“We want to give people the ability to participate in solutions every time they visit a grocery store,” Gray said in a statement. “We envision a future where many products in every aisle and around it proudly display upcycled certification, giving consumers the opportunity to choose to reduce food waste with their dollars.”
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