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Upcycled ingredients help processors advance sustainability efforts

Pet food and treat processors have been using upcycled ingredients — namely in the form of rendered meat byproducts — before it was even a coined term. Upcycling is all about preventing healthful, nutritious foods and ingredients from becoming waste by giving them a second chance to be consumed. While rendering meat byproducts into high-protein ingredients rather than disposing of them in landfills is commendable, it’s all the other ingredients now being upcycled that are catching the attention of sustainability-conscious pet parents.

Upcycling gains traction fast

The Upcycled Food Association (UFA), Denver, was formed in 2019 and officially defined the term “upcycled food” in 2020 for use in policy, research and practice. The team of consulting experts agreed that “upcycled foods 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.”

Since, the UFA has certified 236 upcycled ingredients, many of which have applications in pet foods and treats. Four pet food companies — Chippin, Arlington, Va.; Leashless Lab, Milwaukee, Wis.; Phelps Pet Products, Rockford, Ill.; and Shameless Pets, Chicago — currently sport the Upcycled Certified logo.

“Upcycled Certified has been even more successful than we imagined,” said Turner Wyatt, co-founder, former chief executive officer and current strategic advisor to the association. “Every year, almost 1 billion lbs of food waste is prevented by upcycled products around the world. This number will continue to grow as consumer demand for upcycled products increases.

“Lots of Upcycled Certified ingredients can be easily integrated into any recipe, giving a new product a competitive sustainability edge,” Wyatt said. 

Tony Moses, director, product innovation, CRB Kansas City, Mo., said, “Upcycled ingredients typically have the same nutritional properties as other ingredients but have a different appearance. It’s critical that the processing and control systems account for these variations. For example, upcycled produce, such as carrots, may have a wider color range. The control and quality systems in the facility need to be able to detect and accept that wider range.”

Phelps Pet Products, a private-label manufacturer that produces the Table Scraps brand, was the first dog treat manufacturer to become a member of the UFA and the first to produce dog treats using the certified seal.  

“We work with UFA as well as several vendors to source upcycled ingredients, including sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, cranberries, flaxseed, chia, pea protein, barley flour, rice flour, potato flour, carrots, etc.,” said Rick Ruffolo, president and chief executive officer. “We ‘rescue’ these nutritious ingredients and put them to work in our customized jerky dog treat recipes. This helps eliminate food waste in the overall supply chain and reduces demand on ‘virgin’ crops, which is good for the earth and also helps reduce pricing pressures by utilizing items that otherwise would have been discarded.

“With the current global macroeconomic trends around constraints and risk to the food supply chain, anything we can do to help reduce the burden on new crop production is a win for everyone,” Ruffolo added. “New sources of upcycled ingredients are coming to market each month, and this increase in supply seems to be keeping pace with the current demand curve.”

Phelps uses a proprietary chopped, mixed, formed and cold-extruded jerky treat manufacturing process intended to ensure the best, most nutritious parts of fruits, vegetables and other ingredients make it into the mix.

“Whether or not the fruit is bruised, or the sweet potato is disfigured, is irrelevant once the recipe goes through the mixer,” Ruffolo said. “While our efforts in dog treats is only a small step along the [sustainability] path, we hope our example helps inspire the creativity in others to do the same in their respective industries.”

James Bello, co-founder, Shameless Pets, recognized the opportunity of turning nutritionally safe food waste into pet treats a few years ago when he was a corporate food buyer for Target Corp., Minneapolis. Every week he would see the vast amount of food that would go unused in stores. His puggle, Mina, was the taste tester for the treats developed by Alex Waite, a food scientist who he met at a networking event and with whom he founded the company. In October 2018, the duo launched a line of treats that were all-natural, grain-free and boosted with superfoods. Today the company offers soft-baked biscuits, dental sticks, jerky bites and calming chews, all made with upcycled ingredients. The company is on track to rescue 3 million lbs of high-quality surplus or misfit fruits and vegetables by 2025.

“Imagine a farmer’s leftover pumpkins after Halloween or apple pulp from a cider press,” Bello said. “We rescue these healthy ingredients so they don’t go to waste causing needless greenhouse gases.”  

Labels identify the unique upcycled ingredients that are in each product. While most products include upcycled produce, the company uses other nutrient-dense ingredients, too. The Break an Egg Soft-Baked Biscuit, for example, contains upcycled sunflower meal, dried cheese and eggshell meal. 

Eco-awareness

Chippin is a sustainable pet food company on a mission to reduce its eco “pawprint” by utilizing high quality, thoughtfully sourced ingredients. The company’s Cricket Jerky and Silver Carp Jerky treats are Upcycled Certified and include upcycled, US-grown sweet potatoes that may not have a perfect visual appearance for human food sales.

“Chippin products are 80% less resource intensive compared to traditional beef-based treats due to our intentional ingredient sourcing,” said Haley Russell, founder and chief executive officer. “Our treats are powered by novel proteins like cricket, spirulina and silver copi, an overpopulated fish.

“In selecting our ingredients, we vet our suppliers to ensure that they follow safe quality food standards,” Russell said. “We compare each ingredient based on its nutritional value as well as the environmental impact to confirm it meets Chippin’s high-quality standards.”

Portland Pet Food Co. uses upcycled bacon, egg shells, salmon, spent barley and sweet potatoes in its pet food meals and biscuits. Source: Aaron Lee / Portland Pet Food Company

Leashless Lab’s treats are baked with barley from breweries after the carbohydrates and gluten are removed to make beer. This high-protein and high-fiber grain, also known as spent grain, is typically sent to landfills and cattle farmers. Leashless Lab’s treats are more than 40% spent grain combined with a limited number of human-grade healthy ingredients, such as cheese, peanut butter and pumpkin. 

Portland Pet Food Co., Portland, Ore., uses five upcycled ingredients — bacon, eggshells, salmon, spent barley and sweet potatoes — in its meals and biscuits. In the past year, that has equated to 68,600 lbs of upcycled ingredients.

“When I founded the company in 2014, I was on the hunt for fresh, human-grade ingredients from partners that I could trust,” said Katie McCarron, founder of Portland Pet Food Co. “Instead of working with large suppliers and rendering plants, I made a conscious decision to work with local farms and vendors, as I knew I could trust the quality of ingredients being sourced. In working with these local partners, I discovered that there are a handful of high-quality, fresh ingredients that are deemed waste. I decided to upcycle these local ingredients that were being thrown out.”

The misshapen sweet potatoes are from local farms, while the meat and seafood come from Pacific Northwest vendors. The latter is mainly “ends and pieces” that would never be sold at the grocery store. 

The spent barley comes from local breweries. It typically makes up about 85% of a brewer’s total waste, since many breweries do not have time to build partnerships with companies to utilize this product, according to McCarron. Last year, the company upcycled more than 13,000 lbs of spent grain, up from 4,300 lbs in 2020.

“The eggshells are a safe way to increase the calcium content of our products,” McCarron said. “The eggshells we use are repurposed from products like liquid egg manufacturers, and last year, we used over 2,600 lbs of eggshells in our meals.” 

Portland Pet Food communicates the use of upcycled ingredients via educational blog posts on its website and social media. The company recently rebranded its biscuit packaging to better highlight the upcycled ingredients.

“The change included a callout on the front stating ‘Made with upcycled spent grain,’” McCarron said. “There’s an explanation on the back about how and why we upcycle from our favorite local breweries.”

Three Dog Bakery LLC, Kansas City, Mo., uses imperfect human bread to make its Super Rewards with Superfoods treats. Varieties are Blueberry Cobbler, Orchard Apple Pie and Pumpkin Cranberry Crumble.

“The upcycled bakery products begin at a nationally recognized family bread bakery as a sandwich bread, baguette or roll that does not meet the baker’s high visual standards,” said Marella Oviedo, chief marketing and innovation officer. “These visually imperfect breads are then transferred to the Three Dog Bakery pet treat plant where they are ground down into a fine flour defined by AAFCO as ‘dried bakery product.’ We don’t use products with sugar.”

Hofseth BioCare, Chicago, is a zero waste, carbon neutral company producing salmon oil, marine calcium, marine protein and salmon meal for use in pet food.

“We source the vast majority of our raw material from our sister company, Hofseth International, which is a leader in salmon fillet exports from Norway,” said Bill Lowe, president, North America, Hofseth BioCare. “Our salmon oil is produced from fresh salmon off-cuts, such as the head, backbone and skin. Through this process, we now use 100% of the salmon and make sure that nothing goes to waste.”

The salmon oil ingredient contains 21 fatty acids, natural antioxidants and lipo-peptides, all of which are beneficial to pets. The product is fully traceable, from the moment the salmon leaves the water to the packaged oil.

Duynie Ingredients is a plant-based upcycled ingredient manufacturer for the pet food industry based in The Netherlands.

“All of our ingredients have a significantly lower environmental impact than conventional alternatives,” said Jay Granfield, sales manager, North America for Duynie Ingredients. “The carbon footprint, water footprint and land use are lower because the raw materials are co-products from the food industry and are dried with residual heat from a nearby bio-energy plant. Using our ingredients in pet food formulations results in more sustainable pet food and contributes to pet food manufacturer’s sustainability goals.”

 The company’s dehydrated potato ingredients, for example, are derived from manufacturing French fries, crisps, potato flakes and potato starch. Potato ingredients provide texture and structure to form the kibble. They are easily tolerated and digestible, as well as nutritious and healthy for dogs and cats.

“Our dehydrated carrot ingredients are released during the processing of food-grade carrots for the human food industry,” Granfield said. “All carrot ingredients come from local vegetable processors. We focus on production of whole carrots from top to bottom and carrot pieces. This has a better nutritional value and it gives the advantage that they can be declared on the packaging as whole carrots.”

After the sugar is extracted from sugar beets, what remains is a high-quality fibrous pulp. The company dries this for use in pet foods, too.

The company provides pet food manufacturers with Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) for each ingredient. This is a process of evaluating the effects that a product has on the environment over its entire lifespan.

“We provide this to our customers and they can use this information to calculate the LCA of their pet food and display this on their package,” Granfield said. “The fact that upcycled ingredients are used as ingredients in pet food is positive for sustainability. Using upcycled ingredients allows for greater sustainability by saving water, energy and land, as a result of using human food ingredients that were safe for humans but didn’t meet the specification of the processor.”

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