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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

As a former food marketer I want to believe the story that Grape Nuts is, or was, a by-product of making a more glamorous ready-to-eat cereal. Creating a borderline-iconic brand from waste shows business and marketing acumen, worthy of a business school case study.

I am also a loyal Grape Nuts fan. During the pandemic I discovered that the product satisfies a taste and texture craving that’s not easily replaced. You couldn’t find that unusual small box for months. The brand is back in my weekly breakfast rotation. My wife and girls would have been happier if Grape Nuts had never returned to the shelves. Now that we’re home a lot more I have to find spots far from the action to let the hard nuggets mellow in a bowl of milk. I have to agree with the fam; the smell is off-putting.

It seems, looking at the ingredient list with a more critical eye, that Grape Nuts probably was formulated as its own thing from the start. Or maybe, the form of barley or wheat, the main ingredients was in the waste stream of some cereal production line and an enterprising developer tinkered with recipes until they landed on Grape Nuts.

There is a growing list of food production tinkerers bent on making a dent in food waste. Upcyclers. The mission of these entrepreneurs is to create products and brands from unusable food and unused, or little-used by-products.

Food ingredients 1st, a company that provides news, statistics, trends, and analysis about the food and beverage industry recently featured several new/newish products claiming to be made with upcycled ingredients.

Hello, I’m Ugly is the name of the first brand on their list. As the name suggests, the company packages dried fruit deemed unsellable to us, the end consumers, because the nectarine, or apricot, peach, or kiwi is imperfect in some way; the fruit is not the right shape, or color, or it’s bruised.

In a similar vein, Dirt Kitchen makes zucchini chips from what they call “funky shaped, colored, and surplus veggies.”

The stores near me don’t carry Barnana Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Banana Brittle but I did find and buy - for $4.45 – a bag of Banana Bites. The serious-looking, illustrated monkey (that reminds me of a barrel of monkeys plastic monkey) informs you that they use scuffed up, too ripe, or oddly shaped bananas taken right from the plantation. The bites are more like bits, about the size and color of raisins of different sizes and shapes. They smell and taste of really ripe bananas, the ones that go into banana bread. I do like the chewy, but not gelatinous texture.

I also tried RIND, skin-on dried fruit. They claim the rind is more nutritious than any other part of the fruit, which is even more reason to not peel it off during production and to not create another waste stream. The Straw-Peary blend was good, though heavy on the bosc pears and red apples. A nice aroma hits you when you open the bag. The peels add an additional layer of chewiness to the fruit so you know you’re getting your roughage after a few pieces. Rind snacks do taste naturally, lightly sweetened. All dried fruit makers should consider leaving the peels on. That’ll make the snack more affordable one day. I paid $5.49 for a small bag.

Then there are upcycled products that are made from the waste stream of something else being made.

Frankfuls is a brand of tortilla chips in Finland that uses throwaway tortilla wraps as a starting point.

Rubies in the Rubble is a mayonnaise launched in the UK that is made with aquafaba, a plant-based alternative to eggs. I love the brand name. Never heard of aquafaba, though. It’s the starchy liquid left over when you cook chickpeas. Apparently, it whips up into a foam a lot like egg whites. Vegan bakers know this. I can’t easily get Rubies in the Rubble here in the US so the taste test vs. Hellmann’s mayonnaise will have to wait.

There’s an Italian beer called Seven brothers throwaway ipa whose recipe calls for upcycled Kellogg’s corn flakes. Hard to find this pale ale here but I did sample Take Two barleymilk. There’s one pound of spent barley from beer brewing in each container. The taste of this “rejuvenated” barley doesn’t register anything like beer. Barley milk has the consistency of any grain or nut milk. The flavor reminded me of unsweetened, and I mean unsweetened cocoa; neutral. The taste didn’t detract from my unsweetened muesli, but it didn’t add anything to it either. The trial-inducing price was in line with other plant-based milks.

Rescuing fruits and veggies not fit for supermarket display and converting them into health-ier snacks is commendable. Diverting food processing by-product to a pickier, energy-hungry species like us humans make sense.

Spent grain and misshapen, splotchy produce gets fed to livestock or can be ploughed back into soil, I’m guessing. But it is wasteful to put the time and energy into growing food only to return it – undigested - back to the soil, or, less wastefully, to a less discriminating species that would be just as happy eating what grows in the wild.

There is momentum behind upcycled food. The Upcycled Food Association was founded in 2019. It just launched an upcycled certification mark in April to bring standards to what should be claimed on products like the ones I just talked about. I was curious about these standards.

To earn the certification mark an ingredient must be at least 95% upcycled raw material. The Barnana banana bites would seem to meet this threshold, although there is no upcycled logo on the label. Maybe they mix good-enough bananas with not-good-enough ones. Might be the same story with the Rind fruit snacks. There’s nothing but dried pears, apples and strawberries on the ingredient list, but no upcycled mark.

Take Two barleymilk has qualified for certification. For the more typical packaged food with a longer list of ingredients, the product can use an upcycled mark if the upcycled ingredient makes up at least 10% of the weight. It’s somewhat more complicated than that, and more lenient, but the point is that there is a push to get this marketing claim out to educate us and spur us to at least feel like we’re doing the right thing for the planet if we buy a certified upcycled product. Just know that you’re probably not having as much impact as you’d think or like if you do buy an upcycled food item.

I can live with the risk of somewhat harmless deception if this catalyzes more and more of us to start tackling food waste in all facets of our lives.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

I shop for groceries from a list. Sort of. The trip is usually spurred by the need for a staple or three. It’s a short list of things that don’t really need to be on a list, but maybe we’ve got to restock cumin or vegetable stock too. I’ll know we want fruit but wait to see what looks good and is reasonably priced, beyond bananas. I also expect to be inspired to get the makings for a couple of meals just by virtue of walking the familiar aisles to conjure what we might be in the mood for. It’s a fluid thing. There’s no right or wrong.

What’s making these decisions a bit more onerous these days is the seemingly simple question of should I walk the meat aisle for a pound or two of ground beef, some chicken thighs, or turkey breast or not. I want to wean us off of meat and poultry, but it’s complicated. I should back track to the produce section if I’ve gone too far and hoist a hearty yam. Just one in a bowl of pasta makes for comfort food. I should stare at the broccoli crowns until I remember the peanut sauce that I almost got right a few months ago. And there’s the seven vegetable stew that really could be a standard. It doesn’t take too much effort to make once every few weeks.

The meat case is changing. It too is starting to offer meatless suggestions. My store started stocking Beyond Meat a few months ago. I haven’t been tempted and no one at home is asking for it either. To me, there’s something unsettling, maybe just aesthetically or philosophically, about a food that’s pretending to be something it isn’t. Which is why I was intrigued to read about the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis. They’re about to reopen.

The owners of the Herbivorous Butcher take pride in the challenge of creating a wide range of traditional butcher fare using anything but animal products. You can find “staples,” like bologna, bacon, meatloaf, and turkey on display in America’s first vegan butcher shop, according to a recent article in Fast Company, but also substitutes for less mainstream delicacies like Korean ribs, Cuban pork, and porchetta. And difficult to simulate meats like ribeye and pulled pork. The “Herbie Butcher” recently revamped its shredded chicken to make it stringy the way chicken protein is stringy and introduced an extra crispy vegan fried chicken. It’s hard to put vegan and fried chicken in the same sentence. They feel like ideas that live in different worlds. But they come together seamlessly, apparently, for folks who have tried it.

The article’s author raves about their Italian cold cuts sandwich which features salami, pastrami, and capicola ham. I’m kind of tempted to try this. It does sound good. And it’s a prepared menu item with a history familiar to most and a particular story in this particular butcher shop. You’re not just buying a pre-packaged pound of meat alternative in the supermarket. You’re buying the experience of shopping for artisan-crafted foods in that space, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds.

Somehow vegan salami, pastrami, ham and mozzarella seem less like impostors when they are bundled into this prepared sandwich with a cocktail of condiments and a real pickle. I’m one step further removed from thinking about the wheat gluten, tapioca flour, jackfruit, pineapple juice, and other ingredients in their plant-based palette.

On the other end of the aesthetic compass, Eleven Madison Park, the renowned restaurant in NYC, celebrates the plant world for what it is. Bloomberg recently reviewed the restaurant’s $365 vegan tasting menu.

First up is a dish of beets wrapped in mustard leaf kimchi and served with red wine jus. But this root veggie is not steamed or boiled the way we do them at home. The beets have been dehydrated, rehydrated, smoked, and cured to give them an even heartier, nuanced flavor.

The effort put into the beets pales compared to the time and attention given to creating a cucumber melon dish. Fresh cucumber and melon are diced into the smallest possible morsels then compressed and served over an avocado cream and threads of daikon. It takes two chefs all day to make this dish.

What sounds the most tantalizing on this tasting menu is half an eggplant, roasted to caramelized sweetness, with tomatoes, glazed radishes, crispy beans, a cocoa bean puree, and sliced summer corn mixed with grits in a fermented almond cream. You get sweet, salty, umami, and maybe a little bitterness too. It feels creamy and sounds crunchy.

Through meticulous physical and chemical manipulation and design it seems the chefs at Eleven Madison Park are unearthing new ways to enjoy veggies, fruits legumes, nuts, seeds and fungi. It is interesting that the lucky person sampling these dishes uses words like “meaty,” and cheesy,” and “buttery” (for a chickpea-based roll) to describe them. It seems animal-based food remains a reference, a standard to judge a meal’s ability to satisfy and satiate at the very least. The reviewer said she didn’t leave hungry, for sure.

The Herbivorous Butcher’s wide variety and this vegan tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park have both opened my eyes to the possibilities of what vegan foods can and will be if these innovators and others keep innovating. I’m encouraged that we might could become content herbivores in the less than distant future without having to spend a fortnight’s worth of grocery bills on one meal.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

I gravitate to stories about “Big Food” companies because I worked at one for years and continue to support their research needs. These days companies like PepsiCo, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, and Unilever are getting attention because of the carbon footprint they leave, mostly because of plastic packaging. Packaged goods are almost by definition not good for the planet. Think of the vast quantities of non-renewable resources consumed every year in making, bottling, shipping, and storing in a climate controlled environment billions of individually packaged items designed to be shelf stable for a year or more. A just published study in Environmental Research Letters estimates that manufacturing food and inputs like fertilizer and transporting them alone – not what happens on the farm - accounts for about 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

As currently designed, packaged foods don’t feel like they’re part of a sustainable solution to feeding ourselves. I’m not sure the biggest companies are completely rethinking the packaged good model, yet, but sustainability goals are central to their communication with shareholders and the investment community, and there are circular model projects making the headlines. Both Coca Cola and PepsiCo are working on a paper-based bottle. In some cities you can order a refillable Haagen-Dazs pint container that you ship back through a third-party called Loop. There are other things happening, and environmental activists are keeping the pressure on.

Big Food has been the target of health and nutrition activism for much longer, of course. We all know that many packaged foods and beverages are not particularly good for us either but we indulge, while packaged food companies work diligently to meet our needs and wishes. We consumers rely on the convenience and cost of packaged foods. We believe our over-scheduled lives demand it. We enjoy, even crave, packaged foods that have been designed to touch all the right sensory buttons. Consumers and producers have been doing this dance for decades. We’re in a sort of mutually reinforcing loop.

IRI worldwide released its annual New Product Pacesetter report a couple of weeks ago. The top 2 new food and beverage products in 2020 were hard seltzers. Blame the pandemic. Rebel ice cream was number five, followed by Reign energy drink, Cheetos popcorn, and Kinder Bueno, a chocolate snack. Beyond Sausage, a plant-based alternative was one of only a few products positioned as healthier on this list of top sellers in their first year. The others being Mountain Dew zero sugar, and Reese’s Thins (which is pushing it…)

Health watchdogs keep pointing to the statistics around obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to make the case that our collective eating and drinking behavior isn’t improving. This IRI report would seem to bear this out. This despite claims in survey after survey that we say we are eating healthier, the advent of the FDA’s Food Plate which replaced the Food Pyramid in 2011 and subtly encourages less meat-eating, and despite efforts by food makers to make products “healthier.”

At least as far back as fifteen years ago, companies like Unilever, where I worked, were setting goals to reduce the amount of salt/sodium, saturated fat, and sugar in their products. Tons and tons of the “bad stuff” have been removed from convenience foods and drinks over the years. It’s not spotlight-grabbing material, though. Maybe because, at least partly, these efforts haven’t made a big enough dent in the nutritional profile of our favorite packaged foods. That’s what popped in my head when I read about a leaked internal report in which Nestle acknowledges that a significant percentage of the company’s food portfolio is unhealthy.

According to the Financial Times article, nearly 70% of Nestle’s main food and beverage products “do not meet a recognized definition of health.” This includes almost all of the company’s confectionary, ice cream, and beverage items, and a significant number of dairy products. Good thing they sell a sea of bottled water. Actually, not so good from a sustainability pov.

A follow-up article in Food Navigator talks about how the company will be revealing a big plan for addressing the widespread gap in the health profile of their products later in 2021. It seems they will be reviewing their entire portfolio of products to see what should be done to (I’m paraphrasing a Nestle source) “meet the nutritional needs of a balanced diet across all life phases.”

The scale of products deemed unhealthy by Nestle itself doesn’t surprise me. I’m not that surprised that this information was leaked. Without being too cynical, this story might be part of a campaign to change perceptions of the world’s largest food company. I am stunned that Nestle appears to want to seriously confront the nutritional content and healthfulness of its products. It would be no small task for the company to overhaul its portfolio. To make nutritionally sound products that we will be willing to buy – less salt, less sugar, less fat - and on which they will make a similar margin to what they make today.

Is it a watershed moment? There’s a chance it might be. It’s not just health activists complaining. Regulatory agencies are putting pressure on Big Food. And consumers are starting to ask demanding questions too, according to a Nestle spokesperson.

Nestle launched an innovation accelerator program in 2019 to expand the reach of its R&D program and speed up the process of getting functional foods to the market – foods with added good stuff, like a line of super fruit smoothies that help with immunity and energy. Maybe Nestle will take a similar approach to accelerating the process of taking out the “bad for you” stuff. There’s a limit to what Nestle can do, though. Ice cream is ice cream. Chocolate is chocolate.

If, like me, you don’t grow or forage for your own food you are in this co-dependent relationship with Big Food and all companies, large and small, that can now bring groceries right up to your door step. If food companies like Nestle are making an earnest step towards providing healthier food, and food grown and distributed more sustainably, what more can I do to shop, prepare, and consume more mindfully? I’ll have to be prepared to pay a bit more for food. My taste buds would need to adjust to less sweet and salt and fat.

But I’d need to give up on convenience more than anything, I think. Time and effort to make meals and snacks from basic ingredients. Then again, it is a co-dependent relationship. If we cut back on packaged, convenience foods, Big Food will need to innovate. They’ll have to figure out how to profit from those occasions when we don’t want a traditional package and the manufactured food inside.

I say hope for the best from our producer partners but plan and act to protect your true, best interests when it comes to eating healthier.

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