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Upcycled Food Seal Fights Climate Change, Creates Markets

Farmers leave behind hay straw. Manufacturers send sunflower husks and banana peels to the composter. Breweries and distilleries go through enormous volumes of grain; most of it never is consumed by humans, although plenty gets fed to livestock.

Meanwhile, people and food service companies toss colossal volumes of food into the trash, most of which heads straight to landfills. 

Food waste is a big problem. Most of it ends up in landfills, broadcasting methane into the atmosphere. In fact, food waste claims about 40% of all landfill volume. Reducing it is the single most effective thing people can do to mitigate greenhouse gases, as methane traps heat with much more potency than carbon dioxide.

New seal gives consumers simple climate tool

To confront the problem, the Upcycled Food Association last week unveiled its seal, the first of its kind in the world. The consumer-facing symbol offers clear guidance to people searching for products that help reduce food waste by embracing it.

The new Upcycled Food Association seal will simultaneously fight climate change and create new commercial markets.

The seal rests on a strong foundation. The Denver-area nonprofit spent months codifying the steps that companies must take to gain the ability to slap seals on products. Making a difference, rather than just upping the use of upcycled foods in products, stood as a vital organizing principle from the beginning. As the UFA began crafting its third-party certified program, it held as a goal requiring companies to use meaningful amounts of upcycled food in order to use the seal.

Beer is mostly water and grain. The grain often gets tossed or used for animal feed. But the UFA is helping the industry find new ways to incorporate spent grains into new products designed for humans.

In other words, adding spent brewing grain into a commercial bread could lead to the attainment of seal status. But first, the amount of reused grain must be substantive. It’s the job of the certification process to lay out what volumes of upcycled foods contribute in meaningful ways towards the UFA’s goal of eliminating food waste. And then to measure and track applicants’ progress. Once they fulfill the requirements, the right to use the seal gets granted.

“We are working towards a future where consumers can fill their entire grocery cart with upcycled foods,” says UFA founder and CEO Turner Wyatt. “Cleaning supplies. Pet food. Cosmetics. All of these categories and more will have products containing upcycled foods.”

Team of entrepreneurs bands together to push upcycled foods

Wyatt, who grew up in Denver and graduated from the University of Colorado, became passionate about food waste while serving as an intern at Boulder Food Rescue more than a decade ago. 

During 2019 Wyatt and nine businesses with deep interests in upcycled foods started the UFA. 

“We felt the movement needed more organization. Language about upcycled foods was too fragmented,” he says. “We wanted to create a center of gravity for what we saw as an emerging industry.”

Membership has grown dramatically from the nine that started it all. Now it includes more than 140 companies, ranging from coffee-tech startups to pineapple juggernaut Dole Packaged Foods.

Dole joined the Upcycled Food Association to help find new markets for waste leftover from pineapple farming and processing.

While the climate-change-fighting aspects of the upcycled foods movement don’t exactly shriek conservative Republican, the Trump Administration supported it. Among other things, according to Turner, former Trump Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s support led to the founding of Food Maven, a Colorado Springs organization that prevents food waste.

Chocolate, beer, perfume — myriad industries on board

The UFA’s membership represents a broad swath of the food industry, including producers, green suppliers, consumer product goods, retailers, distributors and food scientists.

“It’s people, for example, who see a large source of otherwise wasted byproduct from agriculture or manufacturing, from a citrus peel to cacao and coffee fruit to spent grain from brewing,” says Turner. “What our members are identifying is large sources of this and commercializing it into products.”

Atomo Coffee, in Seattle, creates coffee facsimiles using things like sunflower husks and watermelon seeds.

Consider Atomo Coffee, a Seattle start-up that makes coffee substitutes from things like sunflower seed husks and watermelon seeds. With loads of tech and R&D, Atomo works to replicate coffee’s flavor and pleasures without needing the bean. Why? Worldwide lust for coffee is persuading farmers to raze rainforests in order to plant coffee. The bean represents the 2nd most intense carbon footprint in agriculture, behind cocoa.

International Flavors & Fragrances, a New York flavors, fragrances and cosmetic company, developed what it calls the Upcycling Collection, a scent portfolio that turns to waste from harvest byproducts such as seeds and pulp to craft new aromatic products. One of them is Turmeric Leaf Oil India, a scent made by saving turmeric leaves (turmeric is harvested for its root; the leaves have long been discarded, often by being burned) and distilling them. 

Once the UFA seal program formally rolls out in June, shoppers will enjoy an easy way to find companies like these — they’ll just look for the seal. And companies eager to join the upcycled food revolution will have a straightforward, clear way to do so. 

A shopping cart full of upcycled products? It’s not here. But given the relative simplicity of the UFA’s program it could dwell in our — and the planet’s — future.

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