What Is Upcycled Food?

Soon you'll be able to choose foods based on a label that reveals upcycled content.

dumping cabbage leaves
Farm workers dump old cabbage leaves.


"Upcycling" is a term that many readers will recognize, but it's typically used in the context of things – old clothing transformed into new styles, art projects that incorporate old materials, tech products that have been refurbished. It can, however, be used to describe food, and what happens when cooks come up with ingenious ways to incorporate ingredients into a product that would otherwise go to waste.

Food is one area of our lives that's in desperate need of an overhaul. Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste worldwide, costing the economy $940 billion a year. All that waste pumps out 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, which amounts to approximately 8 percent of global anthropogenic emissions. Project Drawdown writes in its book by the same title, "Ranked with countries, food would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, just behind the United States and China." Thus, reducing food waste is a powerful step one can take to fight climate change.

So this is why it's worth knowing about the Upcycled Food Association. This group was formed in 2019 by companies that "upcycle" ingredients in their products and recognized "the power of collaboration in growing a successful food category and environmental movement." With many shoppers expressing an interest in wanting to reduce personal food waste, it seemed an ideal time to work together and let their work be known more widely. 

The first goal of the Association was to create a formal definition of what upcycled food is. This was completed by a task force of researchers from Harvard University and Drexel University and representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, WWF, reFED, and more. After six months of consultation, they published a summary paper and produced a definition:

"Upcycled foods 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 definition may sound obvious, but as co-founder and COO Ben Gray explained, it will help to "unify the industry, clarify the vision, and serve as a center of gravity for the upcycled movement." Armed with this new definition, the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) is now on track to create certification standards that will, most likely, result in a logo that food companies that display on packaging to show shoppers that their purchase can help fight food waste. (This is still in the development phase, Gray told me over email.)

The summary paper outlines the basic expectations of an upcycled food certification process. All items must be "value-added products," meaning they capture some of that $940 billion of lost value and "leverage it to create a sustainable and resilient food system." As CEO Turner Wyatt told Forbes in a recent feature,

The group doesn’t want to see big food companies engage in greenwashing by rebranding products that won’t mitigate the food waste problem and have been around for years. "The main goal is to get them to adopt upcycled food ingredients into their food products, putting it all to use and making sure it goes to feed people. We want upcycled to be a word with integrity in the food system."

Upcycling's goal must be to elevate food to its highest and best use – for human consumption, rather than animal feed or cosmetics. Upcycled foods must have a traceable supply chain: "The auditable supply chain ensures that upcycled food is truly helping to reduce waste by utilizing all the nutrients grown on farms, helping farmers get more value out of their land." And the logo, when it comes, must clearly indicate to shoppers what they're getting and supporting.

The Upcycled Food Association website contains a list of its 70+ member companies and I took a look at some to get a sense of how ingredients are upcycled. It was very interesting. Repurposed Pod, for example, makes cacao juice from the pulp left by the chocolate-making process. The Ugly Pickle Co. makes pickles from "cosmetically-challenged" cucumbers that would otherwise be discarded. Outcast Foods produces whole vegetable powders for use in supplements, using discarded North American produce. Avocado Tea Company makes tea from the leaves of the avocado tree, an often-overlooked asset. The list goes on.

I think it's very exciting that the food industry is expanding to include an upcycled category, and I'd happily choose products off the supermarket shelf that proclaim their commitment to this movement. Already I look for the Naturally Imperfect brand at my local grocery store and have never really noticed much difference between those cheaper apples and the expensive "perfect" ones. The UFA is on to something here, and though this may be the first time you've heard about its work, it's probably not the last.

Below is an infographic provided by the Upcycled Food Association that explains more about their work:

What is Upcycled Food?
What is Upcycled Food?. Upcycled Food Association (used with permission)