Don’t Call it Food Waste: Entrepreneurs Turn Surplus Food into Gold
Food startups are diverting raw materials from coffee-bean husks to spent beer-brewing grains from the landfill—and developing markets for upcycled products in the process.
The idea began with a bin of discarded avocado pits. Where others would see waste, Drexel University Food Lab graduate students Sheetal Bahirat and Christa Kwaw-Yankson recognized an opportunity.
After some experimenting, they made an avocado-pit tea by blanching, grating, and then dehydrating the pit. The tea has a mild, slightly fruity taste and a pleasing, natural pink color.
“Everybody throws away their avocado pits—but we can make a tea out of the skins as well,” says Bahirat. “Which is great because this country is in love with avocado.”
Food waste is a hot topic, and startups are eager do something about it. But creating a viable food product company that relies on ingredients considered waste comes with many challenges.
The Food Lab, which is part of Drexel’s Center for Food and Hospitality Management and Department of Nutrition Sciences, has become the go-to R&D resource source for culinary innovators that aim to turn food waste—or “upcycled” food, as they prefer to call it—into consumer products. The lab recently received a two-year grant from the Claniel Foundation to help expand its upcycled food research and development.
Launching a startup food brand is difficult enough, but one that sources waste ingredients faces extra difficulties, says professor Jonathan Deutsch, who founded Food Lab in 2014, which works with major consumer packaged goods companies and entrepreneurs. For instance, food safety is a big concern, he says. It would only take one big health scare involving a food waste-derived product to put consumers off. There are logistics and regulatory challenges as well.
“When you try and do surplus food work in a food system that’s not really designed to do that, you reach additional hurdles,” he says. “What we’re doing is helping our clients through those hurdles.”
The hurdles Deutsch notes are not insignificant: A recent report published by the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University explores food-safety laws in all 50 states covering food donations—like foods that could be used for upcycled food products instead of becoming food waste. The results suggest that food producers across the country can be hesitant to donate food for fear that they could be liable for any food safety issues that arise.