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Upcycled Food Is Officially Defined, Paving the Way to Reduce Food Waste

Food
Upcycled Food Is Officially Defined, Paving the Way to Reduce Food Waste
The Upcycled Food Association announced on May 19 that they define upcycled foods as ones that "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." Minerva Studio / Getty Images

By Jared Kaufman

Upcycled food is now an officially defined term, which advocates say will encourage broader consumer and industry support for products that help reduce food waste. Upcycling—transforming ingredients that would have been wasted into edible food products—has been gaining ground in alternative food movements for several years but had never been officially defined.



The Upcycled Food Association announced on May 19 that they define upcycled foods as ones that "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."

The definition was drafted by a working group convened by the Upcycled Food Association, which included representatives from Harvard University, Drexel University, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, and ReFED, a nonprofit that analyzes solutions to food waste. The Upcycled Food Association is a member-based industry non-profit that aims to boost the profile of upcycled foods. The association's working group hopes that such a definition will make it easier for food companies to show how their products contribute to food waste reduction.

The definition is "putting some teeth into a trend that is doing the right thing for our food supply, our environment, consumers, and businesses," Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at Drexel University and the director of the Drexel Food Lab, says in a statement.

Standardizing the term is also a first step toward legislation that supports upcycling, according to Emily Broad Leib, a Harvard University law professor and the director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic. "Further research can be done to identify and leverage policy incentives to support upcycled foods as a model to reduce food waste and support a more sustainable food system," she says in a statement.

Upcycling has emerged in recent years as a way for food producers to add value to byproducts or surplus ingredients that might otherwise have been wasted. Already, food companies such as Philabundance and Treasure8 are repurposing safely edible ingredients, like excess milk or "ugly" vegetables, into nutritious cheeses and chips.

"We can take these very large waste streams and we can upcycle them into safe, tasty, healthy products and ingredients that can work at large scale distribution," Treasure8 co-founder Timothy Childs told Food Tank in 2018.

Food waste is a significant plague on both the food system and the climate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30–40 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted—about 133 billion pounds a year. The impact is magnified by the water, energy, and land resources that went into producing food that was never consumed. Project Drawdown, an organization that advocates cutting greenhouse gas emissions, has identified reducing food waste as the No. 1 solution to keep warming below 2ºC.

And research shows that consumers not only understand the term "upcycled" as a distinct category, but also see added value in it. According to a benchmark study conducted by Deutsch's team at Drexel University in 2017, customers surveyed viewed "value-added surplus foods" as being significantly different from conventional products and preferred the term "upcycled" over eight alternatives. The results suggest that many customers might find the benefit of upcycled food to be on par with organic certification, meaning they assign value to—and may be willing to pay more for—truly sustainable upcycled products.

The Upcycled Food Association hopes to use the new definition as a way to signal to consumers that food waste reduction claims on products are consistent and verifiable. To follow up on the definition, Upcycled Food Association COO Ben Gray says the association is planning to launch a product certification program for upcycled foods later this year.

"We want to give people the ability to participate in the solution every time they visit a grocery store," Gray says in a statement. "We envision a future in which many products in every aisle and around the perimeter proudly display the upcycled certification, giving consumers the opportunity to vote to reduce food waste with their dollars."

Reposted with permission from Food Tank.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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