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Less waste, more value for food

Two models for reducing waste at scale in food and beverage supply chains.

Dehydrated Strawberries

A startup, True Essence, is figuring out how to keep flavor and reduce waste. Image courtesy of True Essence. 

We all should channel our inner improv comic to invest in the power of "yes and" to solve the array of challenges in the food system. One of the more egregious challenges we face is the issue of food loss and waste.

In case you need a reminder:

  • Cradle-to-grave emissions from food loss and waste represent half of total greenhouse gas emissions from food systems.
  • Food waste is responsible for a quarter of landfill inputs in the U.S.
  • Experts say we collectively waste about 40 percent of our food. And agriculture is responsible for 86 percent of threats to species loss. So by my calculations, food waste indirectly accounts for 34 percent of extinction.

OK, that last one uses some shabby statistical reasoning, showcasing why I stopped pursuing a Ph.D. in economics. The point remains that wasting the emissions and resources used to produce and transport food that ultimately ends up in methane-emitting landfills is a double whammy on the planet, especially in a time of rising food insecurity.  

Nature has never known the concept of waste, with all matter going through cycles where it provides different values to various ecosystems over time. As humans, we must unlearn the concept of waste as fast as possible. 

To help this process, here are two examples that demonstrate the wide array of solutions erasing the concept of food waste inside businesses — and reframing them as wasted resources and potential value. 

From spent to saved grains

In the brewing industry, there is a material called spent grain. Its major components are the protein and fiber left in the barley from the initial stages of brewing. In recent history, this mixture has been downcycled into animal feed because of its nutrient-rich content. 

Companies are now innovating (or rediscovering) ways to use the grains as sustainable, nutritious ingredients for human consumption. 

One that is positioned to scale because of its partnership with the largest brewing company in the world is EverGrain. This protein ingredient company launched in 2020 after seven years of research, development and incubation within AB InBev. 

As CEO Greg Belt explained during a tour of its facilities, "EverGrain wasn't just developed because we saw a business case but also because we saw it as a part of a bigger opportunity that AB InBev has to lead the development of this technology and market."

EverGrain’s state-of-the-art production facility is co-located with AB InBev’s St. Louis campus. The saved grain is piped directly from the brewing process to be turned into Upcycled Certified protein ingredients used in a variety of applications due to its water solubility.

EverGrain’s model as an ingredient company allows it to focus on quality and sustainability while its partners focus on marketing. As the company grows, it hopes to engage an increasingly diverse partner portfolio, including companies in plant-based cheeses and milk, alongside just-add-water hydration mixes, ready-to-drink protein shakes and smoothies. 

Preserving a fresh taste with shelf-stable ingredients

Preventing food from entering waste streams — what the EPA calls source reduction — is the preferred approach in the food recovery hierarchy. 

True Essence Foods provides companies industrial-scale solutions to drastically cut food losses while delivering consistently fresh flavor by dehydrating or concentrating fresh ingredients into shelf-stable forms. This approach reduces losses along the supply chain to retailers and restaurants while increasing shipping efficiency (a 90 percent reduction of mass means more product in each shipment). It also reduces the use of greenhouse gas-emitting refrigerants needed to get fresh flavors to market.

Rather than telling food what it should do because we're smart scientists, let's listen and try to figure out where does flavor go at each stage of processing.

"Rather than telling food what it should do because we're smart scientists, let's listen and try to figure out where does flavor go at each stage of processing," said Matt Rubin, CEO of True Essence Foods. 

Its team has developed two industrial food processing solutions, flavor symmetry (for solids) and flavor balancing (for liquids), which can be applied to various food and beverage types — including fruit juice concentrates, wine, spices and vegetables — to create shelf-stable versions that maintain fresh flavor and aroma. 

Beyond the waste and greenhouse gas reductions, its processing methods lower energy and water costs. These cost savings, combined with additional revenue from bringing formerly wasted product to market, deliver a payback period of seven months for its partners who install the industrial food processors. 

One customer capitalizing is a large winery. It moved from a pilot of the flavor balancing system that was able to handle hundreds of gallons last fall to an industrial installation that can process millions of gallons this spring. Now, the winery is able to remove off-flavors and fermentation byproducts at scale and correct issues related to harvest or climate conditions. This equals no grapes going to waste while consistently delivering fresh flavored wine to market.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

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