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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Upcycle your thinking with upcycled foods

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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