Upcycled is a fairly new term in the food formulating world. It refers to leftovers or byproducts of food processing that are given a second chance to be consumed.

This concept is not new. Once whey, the byproduct of cheesemaking, was considered a waste stream, a nuisance. It was either simply discarded or used as animal feed. Today it is a value-added ingredient with functional and nutritional applications in many varied foods and beverages.

Researchers at Drexel Univ., Philadelphia, recently explored consumer perceptions of this concept. They surveyed more than 1,000 consumers on terms that would encourage them to buy products from materials leftover after processing, including upcycled, salvaged, repurposed, reprocessed and rescued, and found that upcycled was the referred term.

“I think because it’s a familiar term from fashion and maybe it connotes recycling and environmental goodness,” said Jonathan Deutsch with the Center for Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel Univ., who spoke at WasteExpo in Las Vegas, on May 6. “We also learned, contrary to popular belief, consumers would pay more for upcycled than conventional food.”

With the right message and marketing, foods made with upcycled ingredients can command a higher price than conventional products.

“This would suggest food companies could reduce food waste and achieve equal or greater value from products,” Deutsch said.

This effort is most apparent in the flour category, where leftovers such as spent grain from beer brewing get dried and ground into a nutrient-dense ingredient. There are other food processing leftovers being turned into flour, too.

“We forage the food system for streams of nutrition that are currently not utilized or are underutilized and convert them into novel ingredients,” says Claire Schlemme, CEO, Renewal Mill, San Francisco. 

The company currently sells okara flour, which is a high-fiber, high-protein, gluten-free neutral-tasting flour made from the soybean pulp generated during soymilk production. The company is exploring byproducts from other non-dairy milks, including oat, almond and pea.

Coffee flour is another example. It is made from the dehydrated cherry fruit that enrobes coffee beans. It is high in fiber and antioxidants. The taste is not bitter, like coffee, rather it has pleasant citrus and chocolatey notes.

Many of these upcycled flours have application in breading and batter formulations. They provide a unique marketing angle for value-added products.

Tyson Innovation Lab, the Chicago-based team of Tyson Foods Inc., provides its own unique spin on upcycled with Yappah! Chicken Crisps. The brand name was inspired by a tradition in the South American Andes called “yapa,” which refers to the little something extra a merchant gives to a valued customer so nothing gets wasted. 

“The Yappah! brand mission is unique, important and far-reaching,” says Rizal Hamdallah, former head of Tyson Innovation Lab. “The brand was created to inspire people and partners to rethink their relationship to food and how it impacts society. With the Protein Crisps, we are taking forgotten ingredients and crafting them into a delicious protein snack." 

Tyson provides upcycled chicken breast trim that is still full of flavor and protein and combines it with either rescued vegetable puree from juicing or rescued Molson Coors spent grain from beer brewing to create the line’s four flavors, which are: chicken carrot curry, chicken celery mojo, chicken IPA white cheddar and chicken shandy beer.

“This collaboration is consistent with our sustainable brewing priorities to address waste,” says David Durkee, senior director of research and development and innovation for Molson Coors, Denver. “There is great potential to upcycle our spent grains into amazing products and this is a key area of development for our innovation team.”

Chef Kang Kuan, executive chef at Tyson Innovation Lab, a Michelin-Star restaurant-trained professional, says, “We wanted to be ingredient driven in order to create a flavorful snack that people would absolutely love. I was thrilled by the opportunity to source forgotten ingredients and compose them into something more flavor nuanced and protein-filled than typical snack foods. People might not realize that vegetable pulp left behind during juicing is arguably better and richer tasting than the juice itself, and spent grain is surprisingly delicious. So, we had these amazing flavors to work with.”