What is Upcycled Food?


So you’ve upcycled your old clothes, your old wood, and your old glass jars. But can you upcycle your food? The answer is actually yes! And it’s been done a lot.

What is upcycled food? Upcycled food is food and cuisine created out of parts of other food products that would normally be thrown away or discarded. Upcycled food is a safe and sanitary cuisine that doesn’t involve using harmful or unhealthy food products.

Okay, but for real, what kind of food “upcycling” are we talking about?

Why Upcycle Food?

If you think about it, the concept of food upcycling has been around for a LONG time. In history class, we learn that primitive hunting communities used to use every part of animals they killed for something useful, and the concept of food upcycling isn’t much different.

So, for example, ancient cultures would kill a mammoth and use its meat for food, bones for weapons, skin and fur for clothes, and stomach for a bag or something. I don’t actually know–I wasn’t there–but the idea is the same. Everything was used so you didn’t waste anything.

Back then, being resourceful in that way was a necessity to live. It was easier to figure out how to use every bit of every animal (and plant) than it was to find and use resources.

Well, in today’s day and age, resources are REALLY easy to get a hold of, and so, we as a culture kind of got out of the habit of making use of everything we have. We started to create more waste.

That, and we have a ton more people on the planet now than we did thousands of years ago, so things became about making things efficient instead of resourceful. Not “how much can we get out of every resource?”, but instead “how quickly can we make something for people to use?”. And the answer to those two questions can be wildly different.

As a result, when it comes to food, humans usually send a third of CONSUMABLE produce and other food products to waste. That’s like opening up the Oreo pack and having a whole sleeve missing!

That’s kind of insane, and not only do we think about that and say “wow, we can be pretty wasteful,” but it also has environmental implications (and bad ones, at that).

Now, a lot of food is compostable, so throwing out food wouldn’t be that big of a deal if that’s how people got rid of it. But it’s not.

When food gets old or bad, instead of composting it, most of us just put it in the trash–the same trash that’s going to a landfill. So it actually ends up being super bad for the environment.

It comes out to billions of tons of food every year that is discarded in a way that negatively affects the environment. Again, if you’re using the food for compost and have a way to use it that way, that’s awesome. Most of us aren’t that great at gardening though.

How Upcycling Food Works

Using food as a compost would be better termed as food recycling instead of upcycling. Both are good, but we’re talking about upcycling food today.

Essentially, the way upcycling food works is by taking food you would normally throw out for cosmetic reasons or overripeness and using it in recipes that can use that food.

Probably the most popular food to upcycle is bananas. Most people hate eating old, overripe bananas. They’re mushy, brown, and slimy instead of firm, yellow, and chewable. Gross.

So what do you do with brown, bruised, and overripe bananas? Make a smoothie out of them. Or banana bread! In fact, old bananas have larger amounts of sugar in them, so using them in banana bread or smoothies makes a lot of sense. It makes those recipes sweeter!

In other words, if you’re making a smoothie or banana bread, it’s best to upcycle old bananas than it is to buy new bananas.

But I digress.

The same principle can be applied across a bunch of different foods. I’ve seen carrot top hummus, old berry jam, and wilted greens pesto. And hot dogs. For real, though, that’s basically what they are.

There’s really a lot that can be done.

The hard part about doing it yourself is coming up with the recipes. Most people don’t just let produce get overripe, we let it spoil and get moldy. As a consequence, there aren’t nearly as many upcycling recipes as there are normal recipes.

Try and catch your food before it spoils and see if you can make something out of it. The main reasons people throw food out when it’s old are texture or cosmetics. We don’t like the way it feels or looks anymore.

And that’s totally okay that we don’t like those things. So instead of trying to change your mind about the food, change something about the food. In the case of banana bread, the banana is mashed up and put into something else. So texture and color are no longer an issue.

Old tomatoes probably make you grimace when you put them on a sandwich, but if you blend them up and put them into a marinara or a salsa, you just made something fresh that’s way better than the processed stuff you get at the store.

With some skill, a little bit of creativity, and some dedication to catch your food at the right time, upcycling food could be a huge benefit. It helps the planet, but it also helps on the grocery bill.

Popular Upcycled Food Companies

Guess what! You’re not alone in the food upcycling journey. In fact, there are a bunch of companies now that literally exist because of food upcycling. In 2011, there were 11 companies, now there are over a hundred local, national, or international businesses that make good food that was going to be waste.

I decided I would create a table for you that contained some of the popular upcycle food companies I’ve seen on the internet. That way you don’t have to scroll through a super long list.

CompanyWebsiteWhat They Do
ReGrainedhttps://www.regrained.com/These are supergrain bars. Essentially like granola bars, but on steroid.
WTRMLN WTRhttps://wtrmlnwtr.com/A lot of watermelons go to waste strictly for cosmetic reasons. So these guys take the inside fruit and make a drink out of it.
Barnanahttps://barnana.com/Remember how you can use bananas for a lot of things? These guys use them for chips.
Canvashttps://drinkcanvas.com/Canvas drinks are high fiber, high protein shakes made from spent barley grains from breweries.
Risehttps://www.riseproducts.co/Speaking of spent grain. These guys make flour and brownies with it. Nice!
Pulp Pantryhttps://pulppantry.com/These chips are made from vegetable juice pulp. And some of the flavors are pretty wild for veggies.

Benefits to Upcycled Food

So, I’m a huge fan of not doing things unless they’re more convenient or more effective. Are there any benefits to upcycled food instead of just normal food? Turns out, yeah!

  • Upcycled food is usually really nutritious. Most of what gets tossed out in the processing part of making food is the better stuff for you. So you end up getting power-packed snacks and other foods by eating upcycled food.
  • It’s also sustainable. Every time an upcycled food company surfaces (or you upcycle your own produce) the food industry gets a little bit closer to that zero waste goal. Even after you’ve upcycled your food. If you have anything left from THAT, you can still compost it.
  • It’s good for your wallet! The adage of “waste not, want not” is true in this case. Considering the fact that most people throw out a third of their food every year, the more of it you eat, the less you spend.
  • It’s good for the economy. An entire industry exists because of it. When you buy or eat upcycled food, you’re helping a business out and boosting the economy.

So the next time you’re thinking of throwing out that old fruit or vegetable, think to yourself “is this really bad? Or can I use it for something else I didn’t think of?” You might just find that a lot of food you were planning to throw out may become your favorite thing to eat.

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