When Kyle Fiasconaro was riding his bike to work at a restaurant as a teen, he came across a dumpster full of spent grain — what beer makers use to make their malted barley with.
“That dumpster smelled really good,” he said.
He took some of the grain back to his restaurant in Brooklyn, NY and made crackers. After years of doing this, friends encouraged him to sell the slightly sweet but hearty, unique crackers.
Today, his company, Brewer's Foods, sells crackers, pita chips and cookies made with the spent grain attained from craft brewing companies. The products can be found at Whole Foods and Sprout’s stores. Fiasconaro said his goal is to turn his company into a nonprofit focused on feeding people who can’t afford food.
“I’m not going to be a millionaire, I want to just take all the grain from breweries and turn it into food,” Fiasconaro said. “I’m actually shocked and appalled that more food companies don’t take that stance.”
From waste to new foods, education is key
The U.S. is the world’s largest source of food waste. Nearly 80 billion pounds of unused food products are thrown out — representing 30 to 40 percent of the country’s food supply — according to USDA data cited by waste management company RTS.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “U.S. food loss and waste embodies 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (million MTCO2e) GHG emissions (excluding landfill emissions) – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.”
Consumers have taken note and are increasingly seeking out food products made from companies producing food with ingredients that would have otherwise gone to waste. But there is still a need for more education on the process.
Launches of food and beverage products with upcycled ingredients increased 122% in the five years ending third-quarter 2021 — higher than products containing recycled plastic in their packaging and those with carbon-emissions claims — Innova Market Insights found. CPGs have even gotten onboard, as Anheuser-Busch invested $100 million to create snacks and plant-based milks using upcycled barley from its supply chain through its EverGrain platform.
One organization has embraced the task of educating consumers — who are not fully aware of the scope of its benefits — about the role they can play in halting food waste.
The Upcycled Food Association (UFA), which brands itself as a network of over 250 brands and grants products Upcycled Certification, sees educating consumers on the health and sustainability benefits of upcycling as key to its ability to reach mainstream prominence. Joy Nemerson, the group’s program marketing and events manager, said the organization’s research has found that while only 10% of consumers know what upcycled products are, 60% say that they would buy the goods.
“Every industry has waste, even if they say they don’t waste anything, there’s always something,” Nemerson said. “The intention for people to adopt upcycled ingredients is there, it’s just about that knowledge gap, so that’s what we’re trying to fill.”
Adoption of upcycled foods is happening at a rapid pace. Ingredients that were repurposed from food waste for new products grew at a CAGR of 6.4% in August 2022, according to the UFA.
It has labeled over 200 ingredients and products — representing almost 1 billion pounds of diverted food waste — according Nemerson. The upcycled products span from coffee to pasta sauce to baking mixes.
The organization told Food Dive it consults with food makers to determine that the ingredients they are using would have gone to waste, and requires that at least 10% of that ingredient is in their products.
The UFA has uploaded a series of videos on its YouTube channel emphasizing the power consumers hold in reversing the trend of food waste — and thus climate change — through their purchases. It also highlights a range of unique upcycled products, from barley milk made of spent grain to cacao bites sourced from leftover fruits from chocolate production.
While it remains to be seen if the group’s marketing efforts will educate consumers, the Certified Upcycled label on products could bring further awareness if more CPGs produce foods that get certified.
Smaller brands embracing upcycling
The number of smaller companies in the upcycled foods space has significantly grown in the last several years as awareness has increased.
Barnana, which produces plantain chips and chewy banana bites using unsold bananas, are sold at Costco, Whole Foods and CVS. The importance of food waste’s role in climate change is of central importance when educating consumers about the benefits of upcycling, according to its founder Caue Suplicy. He said consumers that are looking for healthier alternatives — such as plantain chips in lieu of potato chips — can be persuaded to buy upcycled products if manufacturers stress both their better-for-you aspects and sustainability appeal.
“The easiest way to reverse climate change is through food waste,” Suplicy said. “If you support a company that is doing the work, you know that you’re doing the work too.”
Anna Peck started Chia Smash as a side hustle in early 2021. She wasn’t originally intending on using upcycled ingredients but after she got to know people at Imperfect Foods — which provides groceries that would have otherwise gone to waste — she became interested in the upcycled mission. Superfood Jam launched Chia Smash jams made with unused chia seeds, dates and fruits, which it sources from fruit processors who discard certain fruits because of their size, color or ripeness. The jams do not contain any added sugar or preservatives.
“What we’re trying to do is reinvigorate the jam and jelly category which really hasn’t seen any innovation in 30 or 40 years, and most have over 55% sugar,” Peck said.
But not all companies are interested in receiving certification from the UFA. Fiasconaro of Brewer’s Foods said he is not interested in it because he does not want to give away information about his products to another organization, and also doesn’t see it as necessary.
“Recipes are important, proprietary information is important,” Fiasconaro said.