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How Upcycling Fights Food Insecurity and Climate Change - Part 3

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Sustainability. Health. Access. These are the backbones of a secure food system.

Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, a professor in the Department of Food and Hospitality Management in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University, and director of the Drexel Food Laboratory, works to bring these basic concepts together to make food affordable and healthy for “as many people as possible.”

He previously was an inaugural James Beard Foundation Impact Fellow, spearheading efforts to educate those in the culinary industry about food waste reduction.

Dr. Deutsch began his presentation with an explanation about the research being completed at the Drexel Food Lab. The lab focuses on good food product design and innovation. Upcycling foods in particular combines the trifecta of sustainability, health and access.

He explained: “One of the great things about upcycling is it really dings all of those bells. It's sustainable, in that it's diverting what would otherwise be wasted into value added food products. Many of those products are healthier.”

One of the questions Dr.Deutsch is upcycled food really better? “It’s incrementally better,” he responded.

There are a variety of health and delicious upcycled products that are better than conventional foods. Upcycling allows socioeconomic access and also can focus on allergens, distribution and food service.

The true product at the lab, though, is the future colleagues, Dr. Deutsch said.

“I think more important for us than the food product is our next generation of colleagues who are trained in this kind of work,” he explained. “We're really all about giving students these hands-on experiences and research.”

Market-driven sustainable solutions are the end goal of the research and development at the Drexel Lab. But first, defining upcycled food.

“Even before we defined it, we did some formative research,” Dr. Deutsch said. “What do you even call this thing?”

In collaboration with Philabundance, a Philadelphia food bank, and Brian Street, a pickle manufacturer, the Drexel Food Lab took one of the first upcycled food products to market – rescued vegetable relish.  

Labeling played an important part in the research. What words would pique a consumer’s interest?

An academic term was developed for upcycled foods – value added surplus products – VASP. This encompassed the goal of rescued items. Food scraps such as carrot trimmings could now be gathered right from a baby carrot manufacturer and turned into a viable go-to-market product. However, VASP wasn’t consumer friendly. Further research showed that consumers responded well to ‘upcycle’ the most.

“The other thing we found in that in that research was that consumers consider upcycled foods to be different. And that's really important from a marketing perspective,” Dr. Deutsch explained. “They don't consider upcycled foods to be in the natural inorganic category, and they don't consider upcycle foods to be in the conventional everyday grocery category. They see it as something else. And that something else they see as closer to the natural organic world than the conventional world.”

This universal word – upcycled – significantly impacts the consumer’s willingness to pay. There’s a market and there is acceptance, but there is very low awareness and familiarity with upcycled food products, Dr. Deutsch said.

This is frustrating because upcycling is commonplace in other industries such as fashion and textiles. However, this presents ample room for growth in the upcycled food industry.

Dr. Deutsch and his colleagues tested chicken nuggets, granola bars, ice cream, muffins and pasta sauce to study consumer behavior and their willingness to pay. They found that while consumers will not inherently pay more for upcycled food, educating consumers about the benefits and tapping into environmental awareness will entice them to pay more for an upcycled product.

The key is “rational messaging.” Simply explaining that the consumer will play a part in reducing food waste and contributing to environmental conservation shows the benefit of that upcycled product.

Editor's Note: The Northeast Recycling Council recently hosted a webinar that explored the state of upcycled food. In this three-part series, readers will have an in-depth look at how organizations and researchers are working to divert food waste into new products, or upcycling. In part one, Turner Wyatt, CEO of Upcycled Food Assocation, describes how upcycled food organizations are collaborating to find solutions too food insecurity and waste. In part two, Anna Hammond, Founder and CEO, Matriark Foods, discussed the current state of the food supply chain. In part three, Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, professor and director at Drexel University's Drexel Food Laboratory, talks about the social and economic value of upcycled food products. The webinar can be viewed in its entirety here.

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