September 22, 2023
Upcycling is having a moment, with increasingly more brands embracing it along with heightened consumer awareness and lots of buzz. But the movement didn’t rise from ether. In fact, it probably would remain little more than an interesting idea if not for the Upcycled Food Association, which turns 4 this year.When it started in 2019, nine companies were members. Now, 250 companies in 20 countries belong to the UFA. In addition, the kinds of companies involved has expanded beyond the CPG startups that defined the early days. Today, multinationals are signing up, along with other stakeholders.
The UFA made its Natural Products Expo debut in 2022 during Expo West, shortly after the release of its certification program and consumer seal. At the time, it remained a relatively novel concept, but the UFA’s booth did attract a lot of attention. During this year’s Expo West, the nonprofit teamed up with Misfits Market for a challenge, inviting brands to submit upcycled proposals for new products: 114 brands submitted ideas.
At Expo East, the UFA is collaborating again with Misfits Market, and also Startup CPG, to sponsor Upcycle Alley, an area on the floor dedicated to brands that are upcycling wasted ingredients into products.
Given the bounty of commercial effervescence bubbling up around upcycling, we caught up with CEO Angie Crone to discuss the latest happenings in the movement and the Association.
Upcycling is becoming an important part of the natural and organic products industry, and it sounds like its popularity is expanding into conventional. Why do you think interest has become so keen, so quickly?
Angie Crone: The pandemic breaking open the supply chain and along the way revealing all of the waste involved in that supply chain helped get things going. It also coincided with the emergence of a lot of data revealing where waste was taking place. I think it was the right time, and we are seeing good traction. It’s not a trend.How would you describe the membership?
AC: The largest cohort is definitely with CPG brands. But over the past 18 months, we have also seen a growing membership around ingredient suppliers, retailers and distributors. Technology companies, too. An important part of upcycling is being able to process these new inputs, and we have seen companies come here to improve their processing facilities. We also are seeing more multinational companies, which are interested through their private labels or developing their own products. Everyone is coming together to innovate and think about waste streams and side streams.
Have any upcycled ingredients surprised you?
AC: My favorite is the avocado pit. There’s a company that is extracting nutrients from avocado pits, which we always thought was inedible, but they are turning it into a tea. We have seen a lot happening in the nutritional space, so things like potatoes to extract starch, which is a great fiber supplement, or extracting prebiotic fibers from bran and the husks and shells of plants. Another surprising area has been the pet food industry. We are seeing a lot of people treating their pets like their children, so we are seeing upcycled sweet potato and apple treats, for example, which you can get at a lower cost.
How has upcycling been embraced during Natural Products Expos?
AC: During our first show in 2022, people were asking, "What is this?" But in 2023, the conversations were different. People were saying, "I was reading about this, how do I get involved, I can’t stop thinking about this." We are seeing a turning of the tide about how it’s being perceived. It’s pivoting from awareness to action, with people now looking for opportunities. At this year’s show, we will have 10 UFA brands exhibiting, with a great variety of products, from salmon burgers to tomato sauces. And we will be on stage talking about upcycling, too.
In what category are you seeing the most innovation?
AC: We are seeing new innovations in every category, from frozen to biodegradable packaging and compostable cups. But where I see a lot of activity is definitely snacks. A recent report showed that consumers snack three times a day, and Gen Z and Millennial consumers snack five times a day. There’s a lot of fun you can have with snacks, using ingredients like brewers’ spent grain, or okara from soy milk production.
Are there common challenges for companies that want to engage with upcycling?
AC: Before you think you want to scale and go big, talk to your partners first. How far are they willing to stretch to process those inputs for you? I’ve heard stories about things falling apart at that stage. So having conversations at that stage is very important.
Can you talk about your outreach to retailers?AC: I’m excited about deepening our retailer engagement. We did an activation with MOM’s Organic that had these standalone features in stores about upcycling—products surrounded with information. We want to do more of these, with conventional retailers in particular. We want to reach the crowd we haven’t reached yet. We see a lot of opportunities for more shelf-based marketing, so we’d like to provide resources to retailers to easily execute on this. We have heard that it’s sometimes hard to locate and source upcycled foods, so we’d like to build out tools that will make it easier for retailers to find brands using upcycled foods.
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