Rise of upcycling holds promise for zero waste goals

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A tortilla made from recycled cereals forms the base of this sandwich wrap. / Photo courtesy of ReGrained

The burgeoning recycling movement could help restaurant owners move closer to zero waste goals in the near future.

While sustainability-conscious restaurants routinely turn leftover fruits and vegetables and meat toppings into menu items, recycling is an industry effort happening on the manufacturing side. It finds a second life for things like the spent grains from the production of beer and oat milk, the whey from cheese making, and the coffee and cocoa berries left after harvesting the beans.

“Recycled foods 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 conference in Santa Barbara, Arizona. California this week. “It started in retail but the restaurant market is ready.

The estimated size of the recycled food economy is $52.9 billion, and according to INNOVA Market Insights, 63% of consumers say 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 in college, as a novice craft beer brewer. “Each six-pack left us with a pound of cereal,” he said. “Grain recycling started as a hobby in 2010.”

Later, he and his business partner harvested spent grains from a network of breweries and repurposed them into what is now called ReGrained Supergrain, a nutritious product that is recycled into flour. Food manufacturers use it to make pizza and pie crusts, pastas, tortillas, coatings, and many baked goods.

“Surplus bread represents the largest volume of food waste,” Kurzrock said. In a true example of “closing the loop” upcycling, this bread is now being repurposed into alcoholic spirits.

The non-profit Upcycled Food Association (UFA) now has a third-party certification program to give products an Upcycled Certified mark on packaging once they meet certain criteria. “More than 200 companies are currently creating recycled food and products,” said UFA CEO Turner Wyatt.

While foodservice is lagging behind retail, he noted that US Foods now has a hamburger bun that uses recycled grain and will sell it soon.

Kurzrock said there are several recycling entry points for operators. On the high end, executive chef Matthew Accarrino of restaurant SPQR in San Francisco makes fresh pasta with ReGrained flour, and pastry chef Erin Kanagy Loux, formerly with Union Square Events in New York, makes a matcha cake in using the product.

Through ReGrained’s Recycled Foods Lab, Kurzrock and his team work with menu developers on emerging concepts and small coffee chains to create upcycled iconic items. But to significantly increase the volume and awareness of upcycling in the restaurant industry, Kurzrock said, “operators must also rely on suppliers to develop solutions.”

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