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Unboxed: 10 natural foods and beverages with an upcycling story

Upcycled food and beverage brands take varied approaches to tackling food waste.

The word “upcycle,” in all of its variations, is starting to come into its own, appearing on more and more natural product food and beverages with differing degrees of explanation and information about what this term means and what consumers and retailers should be aware of when it comes to these products.

While some brands offer detailed explanations on their packaging about their upcycling efforts and the impact these initiatives entail for food waste and the environment, others provide less clarification and transparency—leaving consumers in the dark in terms of what this term means with regard to the product and its ingredients, as well as how much they can trust in the brand’s upcycling commitment.

A climate change issue

In essence, upcycling or upcycled foods are those that are made from ingredients that would not typically have been used for human consumption, that help reduce food waste and that, therefore, have a positive impact on the environment. This is a climate change issue, says Turner Wyatt, the CEO and co-founder of the fledgling Upcycled Food Association (UFA), an organization that partnered with the World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, in 2020 to create an official definition for upcycled food, which includes the fact that these products must have a positive impact on the environment.

Another important part of the upcycling philosophy, explains Wyatt, has to do with the idea of promoting the “highest and best use across the food system.” If food waste is being used in the most efficient way, says Wyatt, it will help “systematically increase the efficiency and sustainability of the system as a whole.”

This means that “ugly” produce that would have otherwise been destined for livestock feed can be considered upcycled food. The same is true for those products using an ingredient that otherwise would have been destined for a landfill. The standards used by the Upcycled Food Association are in line with the list of “food waste destinations” defined by the World Resource Institute.

Building trust

But in an industry that has its fair share of debate about how much “greenwashing” occurs by brands seeking to meet the trends and values that are driving today’s natural products consumers, building trust in newer-to-consumer-concepts such as upcycling can be a challenge—particularly when products can manifest such diverse interpretations of the word.

This is where the UFA’s Upcycled Food Certification can make a difference. Launched just a couple of months ago, this certification is unique, says Wyatt, in that “for every upcycled certified product, there is a quantifiable number of pounds of food waste that’s being prevented as a result of that product.” “This is what consumers want,” he adds, “they want a quantifiable impact, they want to know what they’re getting if they make the switch to [products using upcycled ingredients] and if we can make that super clear and quantify it, then that switch becomes easier.”

“Consumers care about the impact of their food choices on people and the environment,” says Wyatt. Ultimately, that’s what the brands that are rallying behind upcycling and reducing food waste are betting on.

The following gallery features 10 recent natural food and beverage launches with an upcycling story—a couple of which already boast Upcycled Certification.

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