Adding value to waste streams in the food industry

Rod Coogan Patricia Francisco De Oliveira

By Dr Rod Coogan, Dr Patricia Francisco De Oliveira

What is waste? Every single item of food that is grown or produced creates waste that can be used in other products. Upcycling is a growing trend in the food industry, helping companies improve and meet sustainability goals, actively mitigate climate crisis, and find opportunities to take raw materials and ingredients to a different application than originally envisaged. Upcycling can diversify product options while closing loops within the food system.

There is very little waste if we look at opportunities to upcycle in food supply chains.

As an approach to tackle food waste within the food industry, upcycling helps food companies to meet sustainability targets, reduce costs for disposal or treatment of waste streams, and increase product options offered to consumers. The awareness of upcycling has grown due to the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and the urgency for action to mitigate the causes of climate change.

A hidden waste trail

Within the food supply system, considerable amounts of food loss and waste are generated. According to the Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2011), about one third of all food produced is lost or wasted along the food value chain. This amounts to an estimated 1.3 billion tons of wasted food per year, including food lost or wasted from crops to food wasted by consumers and, in part, waste generated within industrial processes. The UN SDGs, to be achieved by 2030, resulted in an urgent call for action by all countries to reduce inequality, improve economic growth, tackle climate change, preserve natural resources, and more. Reducing food loss and waste generation in the food supply system is one of many measures that can significantly contribute to achieve these goals, with food and beverage manufacturing companies playing an important role.

Waste generated from food manufacturing processes are associated with further waste streams and additional labour, utilities, and infrastructure costs related to treatment and adequate disposal. Common solutions to waste streams in the food industry are often of little value (stock feed), detrimental to the soil and ground water (landfilling), and responsible for air pollution (incineration). These processes can be expensive and are not aligned with sustainable best practices due to their high input requirements, energy consumption, use of natural resources, and poor or no benefits to people or the environment.

In food manufacturing, a large proportion of waste includes high value-added substances with potentially beneficial nutritional and chemical compositions that, with appropriate treatment, present opportunities to generate alternative revenue streams with added value, reduced processing waste, new product development options, and portfolio diversification, all while enabling companies to improve on sustainability actions and claims.

But where to start?

When approaching food waste valorisation management, two main strategies are required:

  1. Reducing food waste through manufacturing process review, identification of alternative processes, and adoption of best practices in the industry for existing processes and products. For example, investing in data-driven production to improve efficiency through machine learning, upgrading equipment and technologies, investing in training of operators.
  2. Identifying opportunities to add value to waste through chemical and nutritional characterisation of raw materials, knowledge of the amount of waste generated, and innovative new product development approaches. Some good and known examples of upcycled products are: whey protein – a by-product of cheese manufacturing that is used in many protein-based sports performance foods and drinks; d-limonene – a substance present in waste streams of citrus fruit processing and currently a high-value product used as flavour and fragrance additive in cleaning and cosmetic products, food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals; and spent brewer’s yeast, which can be used to produce Marmite, a well-known spread in UK.

Food waste can be divided into edible and non-edible streams, which help to screen and define opportunities for valorisation. Once food waste is characterised, it can be upcycled through new product development or for other applications, such as the development of bio-based materials for packaging. Another option is to explore biorefinery, which is suitable for industries such as crops or oil.

When exploring valorisation and upcycling options, bioactive compounds are among the more attractive substances from both an economical and health perspective.

Some examples include:

  • Bioactive polyphenols from wine and juice manufacturing processes are antioxidants, desired in food, pharma, health supplements, and cosmetics products
  • Essential oils and soluble fibres from fruits and vegetables processing, as well as colouring and flavouring agents
  • Olive oil waste streams, where a range of high value compounds such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and sugars can be obtained through specific treatments. Extraction, separation, and fermentation processes can be used to create new products using food waste and by-products as raw materials
  • High value products that can be obtained (and then upcycled) from food waste include nutraceuticals, food additives, bio-surfactants, and biobased polymers.

In the US, the Upcycled Food Association (UFA), a non-profit trade association, has introduced the Upcycled certification seal to promote food waste reduction in businesses.

Beyond the bin

The positive impact of upcycling in the food system is evident, alleviating the detrimental health impacts of improper or pollutant waste disposal while unlocking new value streams, with the opportunity to promote positive impacts in local communities. Examples of upcycled products and their positive impact are Blue Stripes cacao, a company that upcycles the whole cacao fruit, shell, and beans in their product portfolio; Cabosse Naturals, a Barry-Callebaut brand, that also upcycles cacao fruit ingredients to use in a variety of food and beverage products, Barnana, a banana-based snacks company that uses unwanted bananas from a Latin America located farm as raw material to manufacture their products; and PeelPioneers, which converts orange peel into dietary fibre, antioxidants, and orange oil.

Other initiatives involving upcycling of food ingredients and the potential benefits to the environment are related to soil remediation and agricultural practices, such as one led by Nestlé UK & Ireland and Cargill, to promote regenerative agriculture by using cocoa shells from their confectionery site as a fertiliser.

The benefits of upcycling food waste have been the focus of recent research, including our exploration into the practical routes towards highly effective waste valorisation strategies. This new, circular economy approach to waste has created brand-new revenue streams for companies such as Treasure8, CRDC, and PulPac.

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