The truth is that upcycling is less novel than we might think. For generations, humans have found ways to maximize resources and invent new uses for common goods. The rise of consumer culture led to the abandonment of thrifty ideals but the deep-rooted influence of our frugal forefathers remains detectable in many of today’s industrial processes. In fact, it’s likely you’ve been eating "upcycled" for years without even knowing! Keep reading for a list of 5 common food items you may not have realized were upcycled.
1) Baby Carrots
These cylindrical orange gems are the crown jewels of the upcycled food movement. Perhaps the most famous upcycled snack of all, baby carrots have maintained a permanent presence in America’s lunch boxes since the 1980s when one California farmer discovered his cosmetically challenged carrots could be tossed into a green bean cutter and reshaped into perfectly attractive miniatures. Baby-cut carrots quickly rose to the top of the vegetable food-chain and to this day account for 70% of all carrot sales in the U.S. The leftover carrot scraps can be used for juicing or as animal feed, closing the loop altogether.
If you’re like most people, the term whey conjures images of bodybuilders pumping iron and touting protein shakes– but the ingredient is actually much more multifaceted than its reputation implies. Sweet whey is a liquid byproduct of solid cheese production rich in calcium, phosphorus, and all 9 essential amino acids. Whey powder is derived from this liquid byproduct through an ultrafiltration and drying system that extracts fats, carbs, water, and minerals, leaving behind a maximal concentration of protein ideal for building lean muscle. In addition to being processed into commercial powders whey can be added to soups and stocks, used as a starter culture to ferment veggies, or as a base for another upcycled favorite, ricotta! Acid whey, the cousin of sweet whey and the byproduct of yogurt and soft cheese production, does not boast the same protein count as its counterpart and is not as useful in food applications but alternative uses for this variation are still being explored.
Unbeknownst to many this rich, viscous sweetener is actually a byproduct of the refined sugar industry. After raw sugarcane has been pressed and crystallized what remains is a concentrated liquid syrup commonly known as molasses. Unlike refined sugar however, molasses retains many vital vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium. The upcycling chain can be taken one step further by fermenting, distilling, and aging molasses to make rum!
4) Grape Leaves
Perhaps you’re familiar with the Meditterranean delicacy known as Dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. This staple of the Middle East is made by wrapping a savory mixture of rice and vegetables in grape leaves. That’s right, the leaves of actual grape vines! The leaves are hand picked during off season then skillfully blanched and brined to preserve for later use. This climate-friendly cultural treat finds creative for a natural resource that would otherwise be ignored.
5) Jam (Well, pectin)
Take a peek at the label on any jar of preserves and you’re almost guaranteed to find pectin on the list of ingredients. Technically speaking, pectin is a soluble fiber found in many fruits and vegetables. When heated with sugar pectin acts as a thickening agent responsible for producing the tantalizing texture of your favorite jam. In layman’s terms, pectin puts the “gel” in jelly. Most commercial pectins are derived from citrus peels and/or apple pomace (the main byproduct of the apple juice industry) using industrial methods of extraction.
The list above proves how much potential remains latent within so-called “scraps” when we think resourcefully. The discovery of alternative uses for mass-scale industry byproducts has undoubtedly reduced the amount of waste material that ends up in landfills by significant numbers, but there is still work to be done! Today, the Upcycled Food movement focuses on elevating food that would otherwise be wasted to higher uses, creating tangible benefits for both the environment and society
Don’t be fooled into thinking you need an industrial operation with fancy machinery to participate in the zero waste movement. In addition to supporting upcycled products, you can experiment with ways to creatively reuse byproducts from the comfort of your own home. Use almond milk pulp to bake cookies, simmer bone broth out of chicken scraps, or turn potato peels into crispy chips! The possibilities for innovation are endless. If you’re looking for extra inspiration, here are some recipes from our very own Chef Phil to get you started.