'Using all of what we have': Minnesota's 'upcycled' food industry takes off – Star Tribune

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What happens to all that malted barley after beer is done brewing, or all those oats after being soaked to make oat milk?

They’re increasingly ending up back in food.

Minnesota’s nascent “upcycled” food industry — which is one part recycling and another part food manufacturing — has gone from nearly nonexistent to vibrant in just a few years.

The aim of upcycling is to find new uses for otherwise discarded, yet still nutritious, foodstuffs. Repurposed grains are hitting shelves in baking mixes, crackers and even cereal.

“It used to be a movement. Now it’s an industry,” said Sue Marshall, founder and CEO of St. Paul-based upcycling company Netzro.

The practice of redirecting food waste — which the industry calls “byproduct utilization” — has been around since agriculture began, mostly by reusing it in animal feed or compost. But rebranding it as upcycling, and finding ways to commercialize the practice for human food, has helped the industry rapidly take off.

“The first upcycled certification came in 2021, now there are hundreds of products at grocery stores,” said Marshall, who is also a founding board member for the three-year-old Upcycled Food Association.

It wasn’t until 2020 that a formal definition for upcycled foods was adopted with industry, nonprofit, government and academic input: “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.”

Up to 8% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions can be attributed to food loss and waste globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the U.S., food loss and waste annually results in carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to 42 coal-fired power plants.

“If food wastage were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world” after the U.S. and China, the U.N. agency said in a report. “A reduction of food losses and waste at global, regional and national levels would have a substantial positive effect on societal resources and in particular, climate change.”

Distilleries and breweries present some of the largest opportunities for upcycling, given the amount of grain they use every week. Grains also have a high carbon footprint and comprise a quarter of global food waste, according to the U.N.

Dual Citizen Brewing Co. in St. Paul aims to be the first brewery in the world to send 100% of its spent grain back into the food system once its new production space opens later this year.

That’s around 1,200 pounds of grain per batch of beer that will be given a second life.

“With supply-chain issues and food shortages, [upcycling] could alleviate some of the hunger we see in our country and possibly worldwide,” said Dual Citizen head brewer Bradley Zimmerman.

With plenty of grain and other ingredients available for reuse, food companies and entrepreneurs are fine-tuning recipes and finding flavors that will make upcycling a sustainable business model.

Zimmerman pictures upcycled pretzels or other snacks sold in the brewery; grains from the Cereal Money stout would make for a great brownie or chocolate cake, he said.

“If we can show people it works here, I don’t see why we can’t implement this around the world.”

Taste testing

Upcycled crackers, cookies and edible cups decorate the vast second-floor corner of St. Paul’s Wycliff building, where Netzro moved its operations earlier this year.

The company doesn’t make upcycled consumer products but rather processes byproducts like a brewery’s spent grains into a dried, pathogen-free commodity for other businesses.

Netzro plans to sell the equipment and license the recipes that allow different grains and byproducts to be processed with a push of a button.

Marshall’s goal is to take care of 100% of a company’s byproduct stream. Netzro’s partnership with Dual Citizen will test that premise.

Netzro first partnered with Utepils Brewing in 2015 and Tattersall Distilling a few years later. Demand for upcycled ingredients has since soared, and Netzro is now fielding interest from around the world.

Columbia Heights-based Agrainery was an early Netzro partner and has developed a host of upcycled baking mixes, including orange polenta cake and rye brownies.

“It has to be better than the standard offering, because if it’s not, people won’t eat it,” said Agrainery founder Shelley Santrach. “Our graham crackers are better than any you can buy at a store,” in part because the upcycling process toasts the recycled grains, she said.

The environmental benefits of getting more life out of food won’t be enough to get consumers to buy in, she said.

“When people see the value of upcycling, as well as that it tastes good, that will make things move forward,” Santrach said. “We might not be the ones who do it, but it’s fun to be part of the process.”

Scaling up

Minneapolis-based Puris is a major supplier of pea protein, which is having a moment among plant-based businesses and consumers.

By taking the protein out of peas, a great deal of starch is left behind — or it was, until Puris started selling upcycled-certified pea starch.

The certification “allows us to amplify that all parts of the pea, more specifically starch, can play an important role in mitigating food waste,” Puris Proteins chief executive Tyler Lorenzen said in a news release this spring. Applications for pea starch include baking, sauces and a pectin and gelatin alternative.

For Eden Prairie-based SunOpta, a leading plant-based milk manufacturer, a whole lot of nutrients are left in oats after oat milk is made.

“Oats are about 30 percent insoluble, and that’s where a lot of the fiber and protein in the oat are located,” said SunOpta chief executive Joe Ennen. “What would typically be referred to as a byproduct, we are drying it, milling it and now have Oat Gold.”

The company’s protein-packed Oat Gold powder received upcycled certification earlier this year and has already found a home in a breakfast cereal brand and secured another customer focused on upcycled foods.

Upcycled Food Association CEO Turner Wyatt, in a statement, praised the efforts to capture “nutrients that slip through the cracks of our food system.”

“It’s the single-most effective thing people can do to address climate change, by using all of what we have.”

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