Food scraps are a key ingredient in food system plans

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While breweries produce beer to satisfy the 200 billion liters a year consumed worldwide, they also produce mountains of ‘spent grains’ – the leftover barley, after its starch has been extracted for brewing.

This spent grain has long been considered of low value and sold as animal feed, or discarded. But the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, is taking a new approach.

AB InBev’s draff extracts, now dubbed ‘saved grains’, are found in food products made by global groups such as Nestlé and Nomad Foods.

Two plants, including a $200 million facility in St Louis, Missouri, and another in Belgium, are being built to turn the byproduct into protein and fiber for use as ingredients.

It is the latest example of food “upcycling”, in which waste and by-products are transformed into new food ingredients, helping to reduce the environmental impact of the food industry.

“Barley is a very rich grain for food – but for 600 years we only used it for beer,” explains Michel Doukeris, managing director of AB InBev. “Now we can find a way to really use the grain.”

As companies seek to meet ambitious climate targets set after the 2015 Paris Agreement, food upcycling has become a priority for manufacturers. As awareness grows that food waste contributes significantly to global emissions – range of estimates between 6% and 10% – upcycling is something to brag about.

Jonathan Deutsch, Professor of Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says, “In many ways, this is an age-old phenomenon that’s been around since people started cooking: keeping vegetables and leftover meat or fish for broth, putting fatty and odd cuts of meat into sausages, salting fish on sake lees[solids left over from sake production]. . .

“For many years, the food industry has literally obscured how sausage is made, lest showing how food that would otherwise be wasted is recycled into food products might discourage consumers – or encourage them to seek discounts. “

Today, the reverse is happening. In 2019, Turner Wyatt, a social entrepreneur from Colorado, USA, founded the Upcycled Food Association and started working on third-party certification of foods with recycled ingredients, allowing them to add a special logo to their packaging. Certified foods must demonstrate environmental benefits.

Since then, the association has certified 140 products, including EverGrain – from AB InBev’s spent grains project – as well as products ranging from canned chopped green beans, which are not usually included, to attorney.

She expects much more: Certified products represent “only a fraction of the industry as it stands today,” says Wyatt.

AB InBev’s new cereal products are considered recycled because they go directly into the human food chain and because they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The by-products of their manufacture are used in a meatless pie made by Birds Eye, which is part of Nomad, and in protein powders made by Nestlé’s Garden of Life brand.

Since 2013, the company has been re-evaluating spent grains, whose brewers produce around 39 million tonnes per year worldwide. Sending its nutritional content for human consumption seemed an improvement over its earlier use as livestock feed, says Gregory Belt, managing director of EverGrain, which is wholly owned by AB InBev. “That way you don’t lose nine-tenths of the protein – cows aren’t the most efficient protein source.”

As ingredient companies seek to help food brands improve their health credentials, fiber as well as protein from spent grains is in increasing demand.

But upcycling presents technical challenges, Deutsch says. For example, barley becomes vulnerable to spoilage once it has been steeped in a wort to make beer and therefore requires additional, preventative treatment.

And, while upcycling is an old phenomenon, its latest incarnations require new technologies. EverGrain has worked with experts from University College Cork in Ireland and uses a patented process to extract the protein powder from its barley.

He sees barley as a potentially significant contributor to the fast growing plant protein industry. If the world’s breweries recycled all their barley, the size of today’s plant protein sector would double, notes EverGrain’s Belt.

There is also potential for recycling food by-products into other industries. Uses include “bioactive compounds for pharmaceuticals or plant fibers made into tableware, plastic or clothing,” Deutsch says. “These processes undoubtedly required new technologies, and continuous progress is being made.”

Consumer goods groups are throwing away a quarter of their raw materials, Belt points out, indicating the scale of the challenge the sector faces in reducing waste and emissions.

Dregs are one of many recycling opportunities for large food companies. Wyatt says others on a similar scale include the cascara fruit of the coffee plant, which can be made into flour or drinks, and the fruits and shells of the cocoa plant – which Nestlé has ground into a pulp l year to sweeten the chocolate.

To be successful, Wyatt says, these products must show full-fledged commercial viability, while helping to meet companies’ emissions goals. Doukeris says AB InBev’s investment in recycling barley reflects its confidence in the commercial viability of EverGrain, since the feed ingredients it manufactures are of far greater value than animal feed.

Marmite, a rare example of a popular brand open about its status as a by-product – in this case brewer’s yeast – is a recycled food that has achieved long-term commercial viability for its manufacturer, Unilever. It has been on sale for 118 years.

However, the cost of processing remains a challenge for companies looking to recycle low-value ingredients, according to a 2020 report from consulting firm Oakland Innovation. Another issue is the potential environmental cost of processing and transportation.

But Wyatt, who began by recycling bread collected by his food association for reuse in brewing, is encouraged by growing interest from multinational corporations.

“Big companies like Mondelez and Dole and Target are saying ‘Oh wait, this is real, this isn’t just a fringe environmental movement,'” he says. “It’s a real part of the food system.”

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