Peels, pods, pulp, stems and seeds have made their way out of garbage cans, compost bins and pig pens into almost every aisle of brick and mortar and online grocery stores across the country.

The catch phrase for this burgeoning grocery category is “upcycled foods,” and driving it are processed food manufacturers intent on bringing to market products made from ingredients that heretofore have been sloughed off as food waste.

The Upcycled Food Association (UFA), a 1-year-old nonprofit organization formed to help these companies reduce waste in the national food system and rally public opinion around their cause, estimates more than 400 upcycled products are for sale in the U.S. market alone. Future Market Insights, a market research firm based in Dubai, places the value of this market segment globally at over $46 billion now, and expects to see 5% compound annual growth rate for the next 10 years.

In its simplest form, upcycled food happens when food makers take less than picture-perfect fruits and vegetables and process and market them as fruit derivatives. The fruit industry has a long history of shuffling off lower-priced seconds – from apples and pears to grapes and tomatoes – to canneries that turn them into sauces and juices. But I don’t recall – nor can I find any historical documentation for – those operations ever mentioning the food waste angle as a selling point. They have always been marketed as premium applesauce, 100-percent juice and diced tomatoes.

But front and center on every bag of dried fruit it ships nationwide, The Ugly Company touts the “seconds” nature of its main ingredient. Whether that package is filled with 100 percent upcycled and dried kiwi, nectarines, peaches or apricots, the tag line is the same, printed in a big white font on pastel packaging “Hello, I’m Ugly.” The company uses as a marketing tool the fact that it can save up to 50,000 pounds of California fruit from entering the waste stream every day, depending on the season. Mainers can buy these products at Whole Foods, most other independent health food stores or online directly from the company.

Brazilian-born Barnana (yes, there is an “n” in that branding) founder Caue Suplicy launched his company in 2012 to create a snack food that homed in on eliminating food waste on organic banana farms in Latin America. He taps an old family recipe for partially drying less than perfect bananas diverted from the waste stream. Some of these chewy bits are shipped plain, and others are dipped in chocolate, peanut butter, or chocolate and peanut butter. The company has expanded to take seconds from coconut growers and plantain farmers. In addition to health food stores, Barnana products are sold at both Hannaford and Shaw’s.

In September, the Dole Food Company joined the Upcycled Food Association. Dole signed on as its 100th member overall but is the first global consumer brand to join the organization’s ranks of mission-driven, food waste reduction companies. Dole joined, company officials said, to signal its commitment to operate as a Zero Waste corporation and to get an inside line on innovative ways to convert less-than-perfect produce into affordable, innovative forms of nutrition. As someone who’s whittled away the prickly skin and leaves of a whole pineapple and wondered if there was a secondary use for either, I’ll be curious to see what products Dole eventually develops from those.

On the vegetable side of the upcycled equation, a company called Spudsy takes imperfect North Carolina sweet potatoes and turns them into Cheeto-like puffed vegan snacks that come in flavors like Buffalo Ranch, Cheesy Cheddar, Bangin’ Bar-B-Q and Cinnamon Churro. Find these products at Whole Foods and at New Morning Natural Foods in Biddeford.

There is also the matter of vegetable pulp. Companies like Oakland, California-based Renewal Mill take okara, or soybean pulp, and turn it into a line of baking products that it markets as being made with “flour that fights climate change” because it uses a waste product of plant-based milk production instead of requiring fuel and water to be used to grow grain. These products are mainly available through upcycled food buying clubs like Good Eggs, Misfits and Imperfect Foods.

California-based Pulp Pantry takes kale and celery pulp from the juice industry and turns it into high-fiber Salt n’ Vinegar, Spicy Barbecue and Jalapeño Lime snack crackers. Its messaging focuses on how by using pulp to make its products – rather that whole bunches of kale or celery – the company has a hand in conserving the vast amount of water and land needed to grow those crops. The company estimates that just since 2019, it has conserved the equivalent of a million liters of water and 30,000 square meters of cropland by using pulp. For now, these products are only for sale to Mainers online.

New markets for upcycled ingredients are cropping up regularly. Swiss chocolatier Barry Callebaut recently announced a spin-off company called Cabosse Naturals, focused on using parts of the cacao fruit normally discarded in the chocolate-making process in order to produce pulp; juice; concentrate from the pulp; and cascara, the last a flour made from the skin. These ingredients will be sold to food manufacturers, artisans bakers and chefs.

Closer to home, Yarmouth entrepreneur Toby Ahrens won a $100,000 USDA grant to work with Maine grain growers, millers and beer makers to explore ways to turn spent grains from the state’s beer-making process into upcycled ingredients and products. In his grant application, Ahrens explains that approximately 202 million barrels of beer are annually produced domestically, the alcohol for which is derived from fermentable sugars found in malted barley. After the brewing process sucks out the carbs, the 4.7 million metric wet tons of spent grain left over is still nutritionally dense, but hardly well-suited for human consumption.

Spent grain spoils quickly, requires milling, and absorbs moisture in ways that make it too complicated to simply add to cakes and cookies. Most of it gets used instead to make fertilizer or animal feed. While it’s still early days for Ahrens’ company, Northern Spent Grains, and he’s reluctant to talk in detail, from my conversations with him I can tell you he is passionate about the potential for spent grains. His team is actively tackling the technical challenges of bringing both ingredients (like a spent grain flour) and products (a puffed snack) to market in Maine.

In the meantime, if you’re wondering what spent grains can add to your life, many local breweries that are also licensed to serve food are mixing spent grain from their operations into their pizza dough. A pint and a pie at Bigelow Brewing in Skowhegan or Fogtown Brewing in Ellsworth, for instance, might be the perfect combination to assess its potential.

Spent grains from beer-making before they’ve been dried and ground. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

I scored a couple of quarts of spent grain from Moderation Brewing in Brunswick and dried them for seven hours in a low oven, according to instructions on the Brooklyn Brew Shop’s site, then enlisted my coffee grinder to make my own spent grain flour. Adding just a bit (Ahrens says to keep the addition to between 5 and 7 percent of the overall weight of ingredients) to my kids’ favorite peanut butter blossom cookies added a distinctly malty flavor and a chewy texture.

Waiting the seven hours for the spent grains to dry gave me time to think about what I can do in my own kitchen to upcycle potential food waste. Of course, Thanksgiving leftovers are probably the best-loved upcycled ingredients any cook has lying around the kitchen this time of year. Who doesn’t covet the day-after turkey sandwich and a bowl of turkey soup? I settled on upcycling the peels from the naked potatoes I mashed for Turkey Day into an earthy cheddar potato peel soup and elevated the last of my cranberry sauce, thinning it with a shot of orange liqueur and rippling it into vanilla ice cream. Dig in and do a green good deed at the same time. Everybody wins.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Bacon, Potato Peel and Cheddar Soup. Don’t throw away the peels. They can make a delicious cheesy, beery, bacon-studded soup. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Bacon, Potato Peel and Cheddar Soup
This is a recipe I adapted from “Love Your Leftovers” by British chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. I’ve added three of my favorite local products: bacon, beer and cheese. Serve this soup with more beer and Day-Old Bread Croutons.

Makes 2 quarts

4 strips smoky bacon, chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 bay leaves

Salt

1 pounds potato peels (from 6 to 8 potatoes)

1 cup local ale

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock

3 cups whole milk

1 cup shredded yellow cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves

Cook the bacon in a medium saucepan over a medium-low heat until it is crispy. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon bits to an upcycled paper bag to drain. Reserve. Add onions, bay leaf and a good pinch of salt to the pot. Sauté gently in the bacon fat, until the onions are soft but haven’t taken on much color, about 10 minutes.

Add the potato peels and give everything a good stir and allow the mixture cook for 2 minutes. Add the ale and cook so the alcohol burns off and the liquid reduces by half. Add the stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the peels are very tender – another 10 minutes or so.

Remove from the heat, cool slightly, and pick out and compost the bay leaves. Puree the mixture until silky smooth and return it to the pot. Place the pan back over low heat. Add the milk and bring it to a very gentle simmer. Slowly sprinkle in the cheddar cheese, stirring well after each addition so it melts smoothly into the soup.

Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve in warmed bowls, topped with the reserved bacon bits and chopped parsley.

Cranberry Ripple Ice Cream, made with cranberry sauce left over from Thanksgiving. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Cranberry Ripple Ice Cream
Mixing leftover cranberry sauce with a bit of alcohol keeps it scoopable once it’s layered into homemade vanilla ice cream. If you don’t want to bother with making your own ice cream, hold a quart of purchased ice cream at room temperature before layering it into the loaf pan with the upcycled cranberry sauce. Eat this alone at midnight with a spoon like I do, or share it with a friend atop a piece of warm apple pie if you’re nicer than I am.

Makes 1 quart 

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

4 egg yolks

¾ cup granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract

1 cup leftover cranberry sauce

2 tablespoons orange liquor

Remember to put your ice cream maker’s canister in the freezer the day before you intend to make this ice cream.

In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and milk. Place the pan over medium heat to warm. Do not let the mixture boil.

In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and salt. Very slowly add 1 cup of the hot cream mixture into the eggs, while whisking constantly. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining cream mixture, and gently cook the custard over medium low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, 8-10 minutes.

Cool the custard to room temperature, stir in the vanilla, and refrigerate it until it is cold. Use an ice cream maker to churn the custard according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Meanwhile, combine the cranberry sauce with orange liquor and 1 tablespoon warm water to thin it out. At the tail end of the churning process, drizzle in the loosened cranberry sauce and churn for 30 seconds more. The ice cream can may be served immediately, but it’s best to put it in the freezer for an hour or 2 to firm up, making it easier to scoop.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.