Upcycling Food Can Help Reduce Food Waste—and Anyone Can Try It

Upcycling is on the rise for food manufacturers and home cooks alike as they seek to reuse food scraps and byproducts that might otherwise be tossed.

Food waste is no small issue. The food system is a major contributor to climate change, and nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are tied to the global food system. A sizable portion of these emissions are directly related to food waste, with at least 6% of global GHG emissions attributed to food waste. When unharvested food, leftover food, or food that’s gone bad is thrown into the trash, eventually ending up in a landfill, it creates methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has up to 80 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide.

Separating vegetable leftovers for compost
Flavia Morlachetti / Getty Images

On both a national and a global scale, 30 to 40% of the food supply is wasted. This is devastating from not only a climate standpoint but also a humanitarian perspective, with more than 800 million people experiencing hunger across the globe. In fact, if the food wasted across the planet was saved instead, it could feed those that experience hunger two times over.

Thankfully, many organizations are taking these issues seriously and tackling the food waste problem in creative ways—one of which is upcycled foods.

What Are Upcycled Foods?

Upcycled foods are products that are created to prevent food waste by using surplus food or food that would otherwise be wasted. Upcycled foods typically use ingredients that people wouldn’t normally eat.

 “These can be ‘imperfect’ looking foods that normally wouldn't make it to supermarket shelves, or parts of food that you would typically throw out,” says Lindsey Beatrice, founder of Lindsey Bea Consultancy, a sustainable landscaping company.

 The Upcycled Food Association also defines these foods as using ingredients that are “procured and produced using verifiable supply chains and have a positive impact on the environment.” Upcycling foods also is inspired by indigenous, traditional food ways of using all of what you have, not wasting anything.

Beyond being an important element to creating a more sustainable food system, upcycled foods are also value-added and can capture millions, if not billions, of dollars of food that would otherwise have ended up in the trash.

Nutritional Benefits of Upcycled Foods

From a nutrition perspective, upcycled foods can also have a seriously positive impact. Oftentimes, these foods are made from captured fruits and vegetables and their byproducts, whether that’s produce that was tossed because of its appearance, leftover pulp from juicing, or scraps from cooking or food processing. Grains that have been used for brewing are also commonly upcycled.

These are all perfect examples of high-fiber foods full of vitamins, minerals, prebiotics, and antioxidant-rich plant compounds that benefit us in so many ways. From boosting our immune systems to improving our gut health, upcycled foods benefit not only the environment, but our bodies directly.

How to Try Upcycled Foods

Now that you know just how great upcycled foods are for both the health of the planet and its human inhabitants, here are a few of the most common upcycled foods you can purchase, as well as some that you can make right at home.

Retail Upcycled Options

Brands have wasted no time jumping on this food trend. Look for the Upcycled Food Association certification, which guarantee that a product was made from upcycling. Not all upcycled products will sport this, though, so here are a few brands that you can count on to offer upcycled foods:

Homemade Upcycled Recipes

The best place to upcycle food is right in your own home kitchen. Here are a few ways to do just that:

  • Compost veggie broth: Save your veggie scraps in the freezer until you have a nice full container. Then, pull them out of the freezer, place them on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast at 400°F for 35 to 40 minutes, until some color has developed. Simmer the roasted veggie scraps with water for an hour, and voilá—you have delicious upcycled veggie broth.
  • Almond meal goodies: Do you make your own almond milk? Well, don’t throw away the almond meal that’s left over from the process. It is the perfect, highly nutritious addition to baked goods, oatmeal, granola, smoothies, and breads.
  • Infused beverages: Save your apple, orange, pear, or any other fruit peels or cores. Then use them to infuse water, your favorite alcohol, or even a simple syrup for the perfect way to make meeting your fluid intake goals more interesting or that nightcap extra special.
  • Bone broth: Keep a separate freezer container for bones, too! Bones from leftover chicken, pork, beef, and even fish are the perfect makings for homemade bone broth full of flavor and collagen.
  • Homemade pickles: Kale stems, carrot peels, and Swiss chard stems are ideal ingredients for a tangy pickle recipe. Often forgotten, these food scraps are chock full of fiber and micronutrients, and can be super delicious when thoughtfully prepared.
  • Broccoli stalks: While these can be saved for pickling or veggie broth, broccoli stalks are also super tasty roasted alongside the florets or cut into fries, dredged in panko, and baked for the perfect twist on French fries.
  • Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds: Whether it’s Halloween or you’re whipping up a homemade squash recipe, save the seeds! Roasting these seeds in olive oil, salt, and pepper make for a satisfying salty snack.
  • Carrot top pesto: “Another great upcycled food option is to make a delicious pesto with carrot tops, nuts, and fresh herbs,” Beatrice says.

Whether you jump on the upcycled food trend at home or in the grocery store, this intentional trend is a fantastic way to help address the global food waste problem, while also saving money and boosting your daily nutrition.

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