To upcycle something means to reuse it by giving it a second life and a new function. It’s like using old jeans you don’t really wear anymore and, instead of throwing them away, you use their material to sew a beautiful denim skirt. It’s a creative way of readapting items or materials so that less waste is created and the used material or item has a longer lifespan. Obviously, producing less waste is a major goal in maintaining our planet clean and unpolluted so that the quality of life is optimum for all living beings. What is great about upcycling is that, more often than not, the new product is more valuable, practical, and beautiful than it previously was. So, you can do the environment a favor, while allowing yourself to express your creativity by reusing existing material, like your old clothes, household items, etc. We expect you would immediately think of recycling while reading about upcycling, so it is important we discuss the different, but similar meanings of the two processes.
Upcycling and recycling are words with similar forms and are related when it comes to their meaning yet they denote different acts. Recycling means taking consumer materials, like plastic, glass, metal, etc., and breaking them down so that the materials can be used for creating new products. Upcycling means reusing an item or a material, but not breaking it down, but rather just using it in a different way, for another product. When you upcycle, you do not change the integrity of materials, unlike with recycling, which reprocesses the material for creating a new product out of it. So, the difference isn’t in the goal of the two processes, but in the manner they’re done. Also, recycled items are often of a lower quality because of the material being processed twice. Upcycled items keep the quality of their material or they’re even better than the ‘predecessor’ item.
Upcycling is definitely something a person can do on their own in their homes by reusing certain items. But, this process has become a worldwide phenomenon and a collective duty so large industries and companies are reshaping their manufacturing into a more sustainable and eco-friendly one by incorporating upcycling in their work. Already, many manufacturing organizations reuse the waste in products that re-enter consumer cycles. A good example of such an organization is a recycling company Terracycle, which uses waste that is difficult or impossible to recycle in order to create new products like park benches, pencil cases, and tote bags from food and drink packaging. On this large scale, upcycling is expected to especially have long-term benefits for nature. When you think about it, upcycling can lead to fewer CO2 emissions because the process allows for materials and items to have an extended lifetime, which means fewer items that use large natural resources are produced. It also means that, through this method, new products are created simply by using existing items or materials thus less energy is used than for extraction and eventual transformation during recycling.
We’ve mentioned that various industries have started relying on upcycling for a more conscious and sustainable production. Naturally, this trend has spread to the food industry and, by default, to the industry closest to our heart – the biscuit industry. Upcycling foods is a new and exciting way to reduce food loss and waste, extend shelf life while rethinking ideas of how to actually create food in a novel way through new production and consumption channels.
The fact that the food industry upcycles more and more isn’t surprising – like every business, it needs to listen to its consumers’ needs and requests. It is evident that consumers nowadays are very consumption conscious, meaning they care about what they put in their bodies, as well as if the production was kind to the environment. They expect the industry to be socially responsible by using more sustainable practices. Conversely, industries need to educate consumers about the environmental and nutritional benefits of upcycled ingredients so that they are enthusiastic about paying for environment-friendly products.
Upcycled Foods Definition Task Force formally defined upcycled foods in 2020 as foods that “use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” This means that in the upcycling industry, agricultural and food waste isn’t wasted anymore because many of the products used in certain manufacturing can be used in the food-making process. Of course, these upcycled ingredients are edible and nutritious, i.e. safe for human consumption (beneficial even - upcycled foods can be rich in nutrients humans need, like fiber and protein). After all, there is no possibility of upcycling an ingredient if id doesn't pass the food safety test.
Unfortunately, every year about 30 % of the total food produced in the world for human consumption goes to waste both in consumption and within the food industry (approximately 1.3. billion tons). Vegetables and fruit are especially wasted, but it’s not just food. Production wastes important resources like land, water, fertilizers, chemicals, energy, and labor.
To show how food upcycling works we want to present ideas some companies have and the proof that the process is possible by looking at real products created through food upcycling.
Commonly upcycled ingredients used for food are powders and flour from fresh produce, nuts, and seed processing byproducts. Renewal Mill produces okara flour, which is a dried soybean pulp obtained from soy milk processing. The okara flour can replace wheat in bakery products, cereal mixtures, emulsified meat, and more. What Renewal Mill does, is it upcycles soybean pulp for use in cookie mixes and similar products. A popular product of theirs is Sugar Cookie Mix, a baking mix based on okara flour, a delicious food high in fiber, which is upcycled from products that would otherwise be wasted. The Mix is used with oil and water to form the dough for baking cookies. Another company, Outcast, produces flours from potatoes, apples, beet, kale, broccoli, and blueberries. Barnanas sells flavored snacks made from surplus bananas. Other companies like Chia Smash offer jam from upcycled fruits while CaPao makes snacks from cacao fruit pods.
In addition to those, there is Nescafé Nativ, coffee made from coffee fruit husks; Sir Kensington’s Vegan Mayo from aquafaba (the water in which chickpeas have been cooked); AquaBotanical bottled water made from evaporated water from juice production; and Toast Ale beer produced from upcycled bread.
A company that has taken a step forward in food production is also Planetarians who upcycle sunflower cake. You may be wondering what sunflower cake even is. Well, it is the residue left from sunflower oil production. Unfortunately, the ingredient is not used often in the food industry despite its nutrition value – it’s rich in proteins, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, a true superfood. It’s only really used (apart from this one instance in the human food industry) as food for animals, while large quantities are thrown away. It would be optimal if sunflower cake could be used for both animal and human food production to really use its potential. Planetarians turn the sunflower cake into flour which can then be added to recipes for various treats like muffins, frankfurters, and biscuits. The flour is highly nutritious which is a bonus and especially helpful if you want to eat healthy biscuits, muffins, etc.
The nutritional ingredient that deserves more usage in recipes instead of wasting it is the spent grain of beer brewing, too. Craft and commercial brewers throw the grain, the byproduct of the brewing process, away after the beer preparation. But, the grain is rich in protein, fiber, cellulose, and hemicellulose, which is great for making healthy food. Thankfully, companies have recognized the product’s potential as ReGrained has a protein bar, Take Two Barkley Milk has plant-based dairy products, and NETZRO adds grain to its flour.
To transform brewers’ spent grains from a waste stream definitely isn’t easy but it allows for a more sustainable production which helps create the optimal circular economy. The transformation turns the grain into a viable food ingredient, but pretreatment and processing modifications based on temperature, pressure, and enzymes are needed because the high protein and insoluble fiber content impact mechanical properties, physical appearance, and sensory characteristics. The responsibility doesn’t come only from those who upcycle the grain to produce food, but from beer brewers as well who must adjust their approach from disposing of a waste stream to using good manufacturing practices for food products. Brewers could help in the eco-friendly products and gain profit from selling the grain to the food-producing companies. The interest is thus global and private.
Earlier we’ve mentioned the circular economy, a term you’ve probably heard many times recently. Politics, economy, and business are getting involved in the process of setting grounds for the circular economy, a more sustainable economy based on the concept of use – reuse – transform – give back to nature instead of use – discard when no longer needed. A circular economy (also known as circularity) is an economic system where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated. The idea came about with other progressive ideas for a conscious industry like industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, and regenerative design, all of which separate economic growth from resource use and emissions. What circular economy tries to accomplish is eliminate large losses of resources, extend the lifecycle of products while retaining their function consistently, and recover value at their end.
The circular economy is a novel economic model shifting from the linear economy.
The industrial revolution gave birth to the linear economy characterized by a take-make-dispose approach. The goal at the time was to form cheaper and faster production systems to be able to feed a growing population with the least amount of losses. After the Great Depression, consumer attitude exacerbated the situation by consuming constantly and carelessly. The focus was to maximize goods and resources accrual while using cheap strategies to minimize economic losses, with no thought given to the consequences of insatiable consumption. There is no denying that the linear economy led to economic prosperity but at a high cost for our planet. Continuous utilization of finite resources and reserves leads to unpleasant consequences which the current consumption-conscious society has thankfully recognized and fights to make a change through a sustainable circular economy. Of course, the biscuit industry as our main focus definitely needs to have a recurring role in the circular economy as creating food for our population has to be conscious otherwise we would be doomed with a creeping prospect of a future with no resources to create food.
Upcycling is one of the major goals for the biscuit industry currently. This production model is possible in the biscuit industry because biscuits are popular treats characterized by a long shelf-life. This feature makes them particularly optimal for adding functional ingredients during processing. We’ll exemplify this by talking about the usage of almond skins in biscuit production. Almond skins are generally thought of as a by-product in the process of blanched almonds production and are used for cattle feeding and composting. However, almond skins can be functional food ingredients because they contain several bioactive phenolic compounds, namely flavonoids, phenolic acids, and tannins. A study was conducted in the UK to see if almond skins can be a functional ingredient in biscuit production. The results not only show that they're functional but nutritious as well! The almond skin powder is particularly rich in fiber (52.6 g/100 g) compared to refined wheat flour (1.8 g/100 g) for biscuit baking. Skins contain mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids, mostly oleic and linoleic, which contain large amounts of vitamin E. The protein content accounted for 11 g/100 g and low amounts of carbohydrates were observed. Biscuits made with regular wheat flour showed less nutritional value, being rich in carbohydrates and poor in fiber, with negligible levels of lipids. Almonds skins possess antioxidant activity and display antibacterial and antiviral effects. They can help with fighting intestinal inflammatory diseases.
It's not just nutritional benefits that are encouraging for the use of almond skins in biscuits – they increase the friability of biscuits, meaning biscuits become easier to break. This is very important for biscuit production as friability is a salient textural characteristic of biscuits – you want them to crumble easily. Tough, non-crumbly biscuits are found to be less favored by consumers.
This example shows how it’s possible to convert a low-value by-product, such as almond skins, into a valuable ingredient that wouldn’t be wasted away. The process creates a healthier biscuit option than the whole wheat flour one and successfully uses an upcycling procedure.
Upcycling is our future and is slowly but surely becoming our present but the path isn’t without any obstacles. As with every new procedure, it’s still in its experimental phase since many companies have to make sure upcycling satisfies three important goals of production: tangible and measurable environmental contributions, financial returns, and consumer interest. The upcycling of food ingredients needs to be connected with sustainable packaging methods for true eco-friendly production as most packaging is produced from slow degrading and toxic plastic.
Replacing common ingredients with upcycled ones can be a challenge as, even though the nutritional value might be higher, the ingredient might change the textural, compositional, or organoleptic properties of a biscuit. Implementing new models of the circular economy requires the development of new processes, business models, and socio-institutional changes, which can create unintentional but unwanted effects. Companies, policymakers, stakeholders, consumers, and scientists need to show motivation for such production and some investment in its realization. Upcycled economy model might be challenging for startup businesses because they would need to rely on circularity-related performance indices, which are still underrepresented. One of the key factors is consumer reception, too.
Together with all the factors stated above, consumer reception of the model is the key to its success. For some consumers, the idea of consuming “waste” might sound unwanted and unpleasant, as a result of misinformation. To check the public view of upcycled food, a recent online UK-based survey was conducted. The survey was taken by 106 participants who were presented with two images of biscuits, one made with upcycled sunflower and a second one made using conventional ingredients. Participants were then asked to select their preferred biscuit concept, drivers of their selection, and their familiarity with the term upcycled. General results showed that 85 % of participants never heard of the term upcycling, but stated that they would consider buying food with upcycled ingredients. The reasons consumers gave for buying upcycling products included environmental and health benefits, being able to take a personal role in food waste reduction and lower price expectations. Conversely, they are afraid that upcycled products would be sold at higher price points due to the added costs of upcycled ingredient recovery and processing. Thus, there is also a concern that upcycled foods target only high-income settings. All of this means that upcycling is a favorable and optimal way in food production but it has to be done strategically and with much care.
What do you think of upcycling in the food, and thus biscuit industry? Let us know!
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