Food made from 'ugly' produce could be a beautiful business opportunity
- A growing number of manufacturers are meeting consumer demand for mission-based, sustainable and plant-based food by developing products made from "ugly" produce.
- Last year, Dieffenbach's Potato Chips launched its line of Uglies Kettle Chips, made from surplus potatoes and spuds with cosmetic blemishes that would normally be rejected, according to Bakery and Snacks. Since Uglies' debut, the chip brand has saved 350,000 pounds of potatoes from going to waste, Diffenbach's claims.
- North Carolina-based startup Glean dehydrates and processes ugly produce into sweet potato, pumpkin and beet flour that appeals to consumers who are gluten-free or on specialty diets like Paleo and keto. For every one-pound bag of Glean's vegetable powder sold, the company donates a one-pound bag to a local food bank.
Rather than throwing the produce out, grocery stores have begun to sell "ugly" over-ripe bananas, bruised apples and weirdly-shaped carrots at reduced prices. Many supermarkets also have launched in-store signage and advertising campaigns encouraging shoppers to use these fruits and veggies in recipes where their looks don't matter, such as homemade breads, pies and stews.
But even with the incentive of saving money, the majority of consumers will reject fruits and vegetables that are irregular, have odd markings or soft spots. This behavior is felt further up the supply chain, causing farmers, food suppliers and grocers to discard fruits and vegetables they know shoppers won't buy before it ever reaches their hands. This has contributed to the world's $1 trillion food waste crisis — last year, 6.7 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables went unharvested or unsold by growers.
Still, consumers are growing more comfortable with the concept of ugly produce. According to a survey by the Harris Poll, 62% of Americans said they would be "somewhat comfortable" eating less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables. Manufacturers such as Dieffenbach's Potato Chips and Glean have found a way to cater to this interest in a way that will actually encourage consumer purchases — by creating products where consumers don't actually have to see the ugly produce.
Only 28% of the respondents in the Harris Poll said they purchased ugly produce in the past year. That hasn't stopped grocers such as Hy-Vee, Walmart, Whole Foods and other grocers from devoting space to these unloved products. In order to tackle issues of hunger and food insecurity now as well as the increased global demand for food in the coming decades, there's room in the market to experiment with rejected potatoes and produce often left rotting in the fields.
Compounding the food waste reduction angle of an ugly produce-based product with a second mission-based claim could help entice consumers who are on the fence. Both Dieffenbach's and Glean have embraced this strategy. The potato chip maker, which last year announced plans to double its manufacturing capacity with the construction of a new plant, donates bags of its product to fundraisers. For each pound of fruit or vegetable powder it sells, Glean donates a pound to a food bank.
"This wasn't just about supporting local farmers and finding a home for fruits and vegetables that might otherwise be wasted, it was about creating a trusted brand of healthy and clean foods for consumers and giving back to those in need," Glean co-founder Will Kornegay told food Navigator.
Time will tell if food products made with ugly produce will prove to be a lucrative category, but given shopper interest in mission-based products, experimenting in this space could be a low-risk way to build a health halo.