Food waste is a huge problem worldwide, which is one reason why snacks made of upcycled food are becoming more and more popular.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about one-third of the food produced in the world each year never makes it into someone’s mouth. That means billions of produce, grains, meat, dairy, and seafood go to waste because it either never leaves the farm, is lost or spoiled during distribution, or is thrown away by stores, restaurants, hotels, schools—and us, from our own homes.
This obviously presents dire humanitarian concerns considering how many people in the world are food insecure, but there are environmental issues at stake too: Food waste is likely responsible for about 8%–10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are directly responsible for global warming, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
One way to divert food from a landfill and curb those numbers is by upcycling—more specifically, by food upcycling. Here’s what you need to know about it. (And some tasty options to give it a try!)
What is upcycled food?
“Put simply, upcycling is all about taking advantage of and utilizing products that would otherwise be wasted,” Kelly McGlinchey, who runs the food sustainability consultancy Table & Tilth, tells SELF. “Within the context of the food industry, upcycling is all about identifying pieces of the supply chain that are typically destined for the landfill and giving new life to them.”
What started as a small trend has blossomed into a full-blown movement over the last few years, with the word turning up on more and more packaging. Now, there’s even an official food-upcycling membership association and certification process launching this year.
The Upcycled Food Association, a nonprofit founded in 2019, has more than 150 members and estimates that there are already over 400 upcycled products in the U.S. marketplace. On Earth Day 2021, the association launched an official certification symbol—similar to vegan or gluten-free marks already on packaging—that qualifying products can place on their food item beginning in August. Criteria for certification include sourcing approved by a supply chain audit, a minimum amount of upcycled ingredients, and a minimum amount of food waste diversion.
Quick emphasis here: There’s nothing unsafe or unhealthy about upcycled foods—they’re not made from spoiled or rotten food, or by parts of food that you shouldn’t eat. Instead, think about things like broccoli stems or carrot tops (perfectly edible items which you probably throw away in your own kitchen), spent grain from breweries, fruit peels, pulp from juiced produce, fish skin, and even unattractive or odd-sized produce that doesn’t sell at grocery stores.
“It’s about rethinking what waste is and how we define waste in the food system,” says McGlinchey. Another bonus? By eating different parts of food, you’re likely getting different elements of nutrition, which can include things like different nutrients, vitamins, or minerals, than you might otherwise. For instance, a 2012 study published in Agrotechnology found that certain fruit peels are rich sources of fiber and contain more vitamin C than the pulp.
And while you may not think “food waste” sounds very appetizing, that may change when you learn about the tasty, nutrient-rich foods innovative food producers have created. Here are some of my favorite ready-to-eat upcycled snacks.
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