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The Upcycled Foods Definition Task Force and FLPC Release New Definition of “Upcycled Foods”

This blog post was written by Food Law and Policy Clinic student Allison Kolberg.

Today, the Upcycled Foods Definition Task Force and task force member Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic have published the first comprehensive definition of upcycled foods. “Upcycling” is a process by which items that would have otherwise been discarded or wasted are transformed into a product of higher quality or greater value than the original item. Unlike recycling, upcycling adds value to the supply chain, reducing overall waste by removing discarded items from the waste stream. Upcycled foods are a growing sector of the circular economy that looks to find new, environmentally-beneficial uses for discarded material. The market value of upcycled food has been estimated at $46.7 billion in 2019.

The mission of the upcycled foods movement is to reduce food loss and waste, thereby decreasing the negative impact on the environment of overproduction and waste while increasing access to safe, sustainable food sources for people around the world. The annual market value of food that is lost or wasted globally is roughly $940 billion. Despite this surplus of food, last year over 820 million people across the globe were undernourished, and one in nine suffered from food insecurity. In the United States alone, food waste has been estimated to be 62.5 million tons annually. Of that amount, 52.4 million tons end up in landfills or other incinerators and 10.1 million tons are lost as on-farm waste. Much of this food is safe and edible, and often it is wasted because it is imperfectly shaped, the by-product of another type of food production, or just merely surplus. Upcycled foods are part of a sustainable, environmentally-friendly solution to this food waste problem.

Upcycled foods are typically made using ingredients that would not be considered marketable food products, whether they are sub-grade produce, by-products of other manufacturing, or scraps from food preparation, each of which normally exits the food supply chain. By diverting these food components from their traditional end-of-life destinations and incorporating them as safe and nutritious ingredients in new food products, upcycled foods can contribute to the reduction of food waste in ways that go beyond a pure landfill-reduction strategy and start conceptualizing food surplus and byproducts as valuable raw materials. Some examples of upcycled foods include banana chips made from off-grade bananas, or pickles that use produce that would otherwise have gone to waste.

As the upcycled food sector expands, having a common definition of the term can help producers, companies, marketing professionals, policymakers, and researchers exploring the potential of upcycled foods to have a shared understanding of the appropriate use of the term. Upcycled food companies looking to use the term on food labels could use this definition as a guide and to reduce confusion among consumers about upcycled foods. Researchers could begin to quantify the effect of upcycling on our food system, using the definition to refine datasets and structure research projects. Policymakers could use this definition to expand sustainability policies to include new tools for waste management and prevention and offer incentives to support use of upcycled foods. The definition is designed to be used by a wide variety of stakeholders and to serve as a foundational document for the industry moving forward.

The summary paper and accompanying infographic (below), published today, provide a succinct definition of upcycled foods along with five definitional elements to provide a common language for companies, policymakers, researchers.

Definition: Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.

Elements:

  1. Upcycled foods are made from ingredients that would otherwise have ended up in any food waste destination.
  2. Upcycled foods are value-added products.
  3. Upcycled foods are for human consumption.
  4. Upcycled foods have an auditable supply chain.
  5. Upcycled foods indicate which ingredients are upcycled on their labels.

The summary paper is the result of a six-month collaborative process involving input from the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and an ad hoc group of experts from the fields of food waste, sustainability, marketing, law and regulation, government, and the nonprofit sector. It includes an overview of the Task Force process, discussions of the background and intent behind the definition and each definitional element, and resources and additional considerations discussed by the Task Force during the drafting process. The definition process was coordinated by the Upcycled Food Association, a trade organization based in Denver, Colorado whose members are companies working in the upcycling industry to produce new food products.