These UC Davis Students Are Using Science To Change Food Waste Forever

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Food waste is a complex issue. It’s found in all stages of the food cycle — from agricultural production to processing to distribution and consumption. The amount of wasted food is truly staggering. According to a National Geographic dive into food waste, we toss around 1.3 billion tons of food each year in the US alone — costing us trillions of dollars. Plus, that billion-plus tons of food is creating an alarming amount of harmful emissions into our atmosphere. The carbon emissions alone equate to 3.3 billion metric tons pouring into the air, as food rots in landfills. That’s so much carbon that if “food waste emissions” was an independent nation it would be the third largest carbon polluter on earth, just below the US and China.

Students at UC Davis decided to tackle this problem head on. At the Food Science and Technology Department of the university, Dr. Edward Spang put out a notice for students to form a group to study food waste from scientific, economic, and technological points of view. In short order, a team of undergrad and grad students began to ask themselves some vital questions: Where could they significantly affect food waste as a team of college students? Could they determine what nutritional value food waste has? And, if so, how could they engineer that food waste in order to repurpose it in other food products? To answer these questions they launched End Of Waste — an effort to scientifically and practically find ways to turn food waste back into food.

The newly formed team set out to study where food is being wasted most prolifically — pre-packaged food factories and juicing facilities. Just think about how much pre-made juice you can buy now compared to even ten years ago. Or how many different fruit snacks. Depressingly, these places tend to use only certain parts of fruits and vegetables before throwing away what is unusable to them. The goal of End of Waste is to extend the lifecycle and maximize the usage of resources, so these sorts of facilities made a good starting place.

Maddison Gurrola, who decided to study Nutritional Science after leaving a career as a line cook at LA’s famed Son Of A Gun restaurant, breaks down End Of Waste’s mission like this:

“End of Waste aims for the better management of wasted food by returning it back to the human food supply chain rather than compost or animal feed.”

Gurrola noted that companies often don’t have a choice in where their leftover food goes. Meaning, more often than not, it ends up in landfills. The team behind End Of Waste quickly realized that making food waste “safe for human consumption” again could be a surefire solution to give that waste a second life.

Emily Gousen, a grad student who’s currently doing research on Food Waste in the Food Science & Technology Department, sees this as a sign of the times, adding: “Consumers, especially millennials, like to spend money on mission-driven brands and are increasingly looking to ‘vote with their dollars.'”

In the current food delivery system, there aren’t a lot of options out there that make use of food waste. We’ve profiled spent grain granola bars and strawberry vodka — but those are niche markets. Gousen laments that when it comes to the average consumer combatting food waste, “There aren’t many options other than going dumpster diving which is pretty out of the question for most people. End Of Waste is about providing people who care about food waste and sustainable agriculture with a product that supports their values.”

So how do these intrepid food science students turn food waste back into food? First, they started looking for a partner to find out if they could repurpose waste for human consumption. After exhaustive research, the team landed on upcycling waste from the industrial juicing and prepared meal facility Urban Remedy. The partnership was welcomed with open arms. Urban Remedy had been looking for ways to upcycle their own food waste for some time. The End Of Waste team gathered samples of waste from Urban Remedy. They then took those samples back to their UC Davis food lab to examine and experiment.

Carrot pulp waste showed high levels of remaining nutritional value. So the team devised a carrot cake made up of 63 percent upcycled pulp. It was a success. Next, the team tried something more daring with what they’re calling the Mocha Bite — a semi-dark chocolate coffee ball coated in cinnamon.

“It is made from 40% juice pressings — what we call pulp,” Maddison Gurrola explains. “And is organic, raw, vegan, and gluten-free.”

So far, scientific predictors project that a product like this from just one processing facility can divert up to 260 tons per year from landfills. While that may seem like a drop in the proverbial multi-billion-ton bucket, it is a start. Moreover, since the product is raw, it doesn’t require too intensive a processing facility for production.

The world is taking notice. End Of Waste entered their Mocha Bites into the Big Bang! Gowan Co. and AGR Challenge Award to “do more with less” and won. That honor came along with a $10,000 prize for further research into their product. Through these early successes, the End Of Waste team has uncovered an untapped ancillary industry for upcycling food waste from industrial food processors. They’re providing the foundations for analyzing viable waste and finding sustainable ways to get that food back into the food chain instead of landfills.

In the glow of this win, Emily Gousen is currently working to identify every published journal article that provides data on food waste, in order to create a website with an interactive map of the world that allows users to search for food waste research based on location, supply chain stage, and food item. This compilation of information is a massive step towards identifying where food waste is happening and therefore where innovators, scientists, chefs, and entrepreneurs can start up businesses like End Of Waste’s sample Mocha Bites.

Meanwhile, Maddison Gurrola reminds us that there’s a lot more to do, and we should think about waste at home too.

“Pulp [from your juicer] can easily be added to meals in creative ways,” she says, “like adding carrot pulp to mashed potatoes for increased fiber and vitamin A. It’s important to spread the awareness of food waste and encourage home behaviors to make a difference.”

The fact is, we have to stop throwing away so much food. That’s a given. Programs like End Of Waste are a logical step in the right direction to fighting the disease to stop the symptoms before it manifests. We live in a world where we have Vegemite because of brewing beer, so there’s plenty of room for End Of Waste’s Mocha Bites because of the juicing industry. And we’re pretty stoked to see and taste what they come up with next.

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