Upcycling's uptick holds promise for zero-waste goals

Upcycling transforms spent grain and other edible byproducts into food that goes on the plate—not into the compost bin or landfill.
upcycled wrap
A tortilla made with upcycled grains forms the carrier for this wrap sandwich. / Photo courtesy of ReGrained

The burgeoning upcycling movement may help move restaurant operators closer to zero-waste goals in the near future.

While sustainability-minded eateries have regularly been turning fruit and vegetable scraps and meat trim into menu items, upcycling is an industry effort taking place on the manufacturing side. It finds a second life for items like spent grain from the production of beer and oat milk, whey from cheesemaking, and coffee and cacao berries left after harvesting the beans. 

“Upcycled food and beverages are a huge market opportunity," said Dan Kurzrock, founder of Upcycled Foods, Inc., during a keynote presentation at the International Foodservice Editorial Council’s conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., this week. "It started in retail but the foodservice market is ready.”

The estimated size of the upcycled food economy is $52.9 billion, and according to INNOVA Market Insights, 63% of consumers say that they would like to eat at a restaurant that actively prevents or reduces food waste, Kurzrock pointed out.

He started thinking about it as a solution to food waste back in college, as a novice craft beer brewer. “Every six-pack produced left us with one pound of grain,” he said. “Upcycling the grain started as a hobby in 2010.”

Later, he and his business partner harvested the spent grain from a network of breweries and repurposed it into what is now called ReGrained Supergrain, a nutritious product that is upcycled into flour. Food manufacturers are using it to make pizza and pie crusts, pasta, tortilla wraps, coatings and many baked items.

“Surplus bread adds up to the largest volume of food waste,” said Kurzrock. In a genuine “close the loop” upcycling example, that bread is now being turned back into alcoholic spirits.

The nonprofit Upcycled Food Association (UFA) now has a third-party certification program to award products an on-package Upcycled Certified mark once they pass certain criteria. “There are 200-plus businesses that are now creating upcycled foods and products,” said Turner Wyatt, CEO of the UFA.

While foodservice lags behind retail, he noted that US Foods now has a hamburger bun that uses upcycled grain and will be selling it soon.

Kurzrock said there are several upcycling entry points for operators. On the upscale end, executive chef Matthew Accarrino of SPQR restaurant in San Francisco is making fresh pasta using ReGrained flour, and pastry chef Erin Kanagy Loux, previously with Union Square Events in New York City, bakes a matcha layer cake using the product.

Through ReGrained's Upcycled Food Lab, Kurzrock and his team work with menu developers at emerging concepts and small coffee chains to create signature upcycled items. But to significantly increase the volume and awareness of upcycling in foodservice, Kurzrock said, “operators also have to lean on suppliers to develop solutions.”

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