Upcycled food trend turns waste into ingredients found on store shelves

Upcycled Food becomes this year’s latest food trend
Upcycled Food becomes this year’s latest fo... 06:32

They say one man's trash is another man's treasure, and lately, that even applies to the food we eat.

Upcycled foods are made from ingredients that would usually be thrown out. They're further processed into marketable products, reducing food waste with a positive impact on the environment.

When Bertha Jimenez moved to the United States from Ecuador for graduate school, she never expected to be on the cutting edge of baking.

"My background was mechanical engineering, so nothing related to baking," Jimenez told CBS News' Nancy Chen.

But when she showed up at Keg & Lantern Brewing Company in Brooklyn, New York, with a bucket in hand, head brewer Jeff Lyons had just what she was looking to tap into. 

He said the brewery produces a dozen of malt barley barrels on average per week. That spent grain has long been discarded. But with the goal of sustainability, Jimenez co-founded Rise, a company collecting nutritious scraps otherwise thrown away during food production to make flour.

"That's 12 times the fiber, two times the proteins, and one-third of the carbs. It's like really, really delicious. And it's also sustainable," she said.

They transform that food waste into ingredients for new products in a process called upcycling. Rise's first target: malted barley.

Jimenez said the best-case scenario for food waste would involve it going into animal feed. The worst case would it have to be put into a landfill.

Instead, she made it something to eat; Jimenez and her team prepared what they call "superflour," crafted from lagers and pilsners. They got surprising feedback from a chef.

"We said, 'We are so sorry that it has some flavor.' He was like, 'Actually like that's the part that I really like it,'" she said.

Since launching in 2017, Rise has quickly expanded, partnering with bakeries and restaurants. They've also started consulting major companies on how to re-use their waste, including beer giant Anheuser Busch.

While Jimenez says Rise's flour is the first of its kind, she's far from alone.

Upcycling was featured as a top trend of 2021 by both Food Network Magazine and Whole Foods. Turner Wyatt created the upcycled Food Association in 2019. He said upcycled food is a "way of taking otherwise wasted food, and creating something new and nutritious out of it to prevent food waste."

About 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year globally. The association represents more than 140 businesses across 20 countries. Some are big companies like Dole, while others are startups with product lines devoted solely to upcycled food like snacks made of salmon skins or makeup powder crafted from rice starch.

"There's already more than 400 upcycled products on the market, but consumers don't know which ones they are. Because there's no label, there's no way to identify which are the upcycled products," Wyatt said.

Next Thursday on Earth Day, the association will unveil a new label soon to be seen on shelves nationwide. It certifies a net-positive impact on the environment, taking into account manufacturing and transportation.

While the term upcycling is new, the practice is as traditional as simmering scraps for broth as it is innovative.

Ned Spang, an assistant professor of food science and technology at UC Davis, works with the upcycled food association. He said he think upcycling will have an impact on the food supply chain.

"I think it's less likely to disrupt it and more likely to kind of improve it. It helps us to do more with less what we're already producing," Spang said.

At a cacao farm in Costa Rica, the cacao fruit is used almost in its entirety to create a new brand of chocolate called Candid.

Chris Kajander, Candid's CEO, engineered a way to use part of the fruit that is traditionally thrown out.

"We essentially extract the pulp and remove it, set it aside. And then go about making chocolate the way chocolate is made. Then we reincorporate the pulp as the primary sweetener," he said.

Launched last year, Candid's Noons are already in 400 stores nationwide. 

The upcycling movement aims to readjust our concept of food, even how we describe it when anything and everything can be ingredients.

"All of these things, it's been declared a waste because the way we treat it. But if we just changed the supply of how we take it, how we transport it, how we store it, it shouldn't be a waste. It should be an ingredient. It should be food. It should be whatever you want to make with them, but it shouldn't go to the landfill," Jimenez said.