Would you eat ketchup made from tossed-out tomatoes? Drink beer made with stale scraps of bread?
If so, join the club. A growing number of companies are making food and drink products out of ingredients traditionally considered waste. And, according to new research, consumers increasingly accept—and even prefer—such products.
“Consumers are actually willing to pay more for food made from surplus products,” says Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts at Drexel University, who led the study.
Deutsch and his colleagues presented study participants with different food products labeled either “conventional,” “organic,” or “value-added surplus”—their term for foods normally destined for the dumpster. Participants were not, as food manufacturers have long assumed, disgusted by the idea of using “trash” in their food, but felt positively about the opportunity to help the environment.
Deutsch hopes this study, recently published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, will help manufacturers feel more confident about incorporating food waste into products.
“Rather than composting or donating scraps for pig feed or secretly carting it off to a landfill, [manufacturers are] going to own the fact that they’re keeping this nutrition in the food system,” says Deutsch.
The problem of food waste has been getting more attention in recent years. Globally, up to a third of all food is spoiled or lost before it can be eaten. America wastes about 62 million tons of food annually, and this waste amounts to some $218 million. Yet one in seven Americans is food insecure, which means they lack consistent access to healthy food. Waste can happen anywhere along the food chain—farms fail to harvest crops due to lack of labor, food spoils during transport, manufacturers toss trimmings too small to use, supermarkets reject produce for imperfect looks, restaurants throw out food after its use-by date, consumers let meals rot in the back of the fridge.
As consumers become increasingly aware of the problem, a number of companies are betting on surplus foods. Washington, DC-based Misfit Juicery sells cold-pressed juices made from aesthetically flawed product and the scraps of fruits and veggies that come from cutting baby carrots or watermelon squares. Britain’s Toast Ale brews beer from surplus bread—unsold loaves from bakeries and scraps from companies that make ready-to-eat sandwiches. Dutch company Barstensvol makes heat-and-eat soups from surplus veggies.
Some of these companies are meeting with major corporate success.
In 2010, Jenny Costa was working at a London hedge fund when she read an article about dumpster divers—people who rummage through industrial trash bins outside supermarkets and restaurants after hours, looking for discarded-but-good food. It got her reading more about the food system, and learning about how difficult it is to match supply to demand.
“I thought, this is just unsustainable,” she says. “We’ve got a planet that actually has the resources to feed everyone, and yet so many go without.”
So Costa launched Rubies in the Rubble, a company that produces jams and chutneys from surplus fruits and vegetables. She sells banana ketchup, spiced pear chutney, piccalilli (an Indian-inspired British pickle relish) and more, all made from produce that would have otherwise been discarded for being under- or over-ripe, funny-looking, or simply in oversupply. Suppliers of Costa’s products include the British supermarket chain Waitrose, the luxury food halls at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason as well as the Marriott Hotels group and Virgin Trains.
This year the company went through about 200 tons of surplus fruits and vegetables; next year Costa estimates they’ll use 500 tons.
“People are starting to value food so much more,” Costa says. “Food is seen as a precious resource rather than a cheap commodity.”
Companies that want to use surplus foods in their products sometimes face technical or regulatory challenges.
When Dan Kurzrock began brewing beer as a hobby in college, he learned that the leftover “spent grains” from the brewing process made excellent bread. Plus, since the brewing process stripped them of their sugars while leaving the fiber and protein, these grains were highly nutritious. But when he decided to try to use these grains on a commercial scale, it wasn’t so easy.
“The stuff as it comes out of the brewery is really wet, and it goes bad really quickly,” Kurzrock says. “When it first comes out, it smells like oatmeal. But come back a day later...”
So he and his team came up with technology to dry out the grain and make it suitable for commercial food production. Their company, ReGrained, now makes cereal bars in several flavors and is coming out with savory snacks soon. Eventually they hope to partner with food companies who’ll use their processing technology to add spent grains to their own foods. With millions of tons of spent grain produced by breweries each year, it’s a huge potential market. ReGrained sources its grains from urban breweries, which have a difficult time getting rid of their spent grain. Rural breweries might give the grain to farmers to use as animal feed, but few farmers are going to drive into San Francisco to haul away pig slop.
As ReGrained has attempted to rebrand spent grain as a sustainable superfood, they’ve needed to add a bit of PR spin.
“'Spent grain’ is a terrible food name,” Kurzrock says. “We’re trying not to say things like ‘waste’ on a package. The phrase we’ve coined is ‘edible upcycling.’”
Deutsch cautions that transparency is key when using surplus food. Consumers like the idea of helping the environment, but they don’t like feeling a company has something to hide. Deutsch brings up the so-called ‘pink slime' scandal of a few years ago, when ABC News reported that meat manufacturers often use something known as “finely textured beef product,” which consists of assorted beef trimmings, in ground beef. While finely textured beef product is perfectly safe to eat, its pink slimy appearance and the perception that the meat companies were hiding its presence from consumers, caused an uproar.
This kind of potential reaction is one reason manufacturers keep waste products out of their food, Deutsch says.
“Even if it costs more money to prepare food less sustainably, there’s a conception that that’s what consumers want,” he says.
But, as companies like Rubies in the Rubble and ReGrained are showing, that perception is changing.
“Consumers want to support products that help the environment and are sustainable and make the world a better place,” Kurzrock says. “And you can create some amazing, really nutritious, delicious food products out of the stuff companies leave behind.”