In the beginning of time, humankind was extremely self-sufficient. In fact, until about 12,000 years ago, all of the planet’s population were ‘hunter-gatherers’, because they hunted, foraged and sourced for food themselves, living off the land. Little was wasted because wastage led to the lack of a meal and the need to head out and find something else to satiate hunger.
With evolution – and time – things changed dramatically. The Stone Age hunter-gatherers gave way to the Neolithic era from 10,000 BC onwards. These foundling communities broke away from their original consumption of wild foods and over the next hundreds of years, began the fledgling practices that paved the formation of modern agriculture.
The 18th and 19th centuries then saw the birth of the industrial revolution in Europe and the United States. Food manufacturing began to take off on a much larger scale during the 18th and 19th century when pasteurisation and canning were invented.
By the 20th century, food was being produced in plants and other facilities on massive scales, with sliced bread, pasteurised milk, freeze-dried vegetables and convenience food all created during that period.
These days, mass-manufactured foods are the norm in our everyday grocery runs and can range from noodles to tofu to chocolate bars. Most consumers have both a bond and a reliance on these foods, as they have neither the time nor the ability to make it themselves.
But like many other things of its time – from farming to restaurants to homes (all of which are major contributors of food waste), food wastage at many food manufacturing plants is typically very high.
To give you some perspective, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food is wasted annually on a global scale. In the food manufacturing industry, most food waste is generated while trimming off edible portions of food, like crusts, peels, skin and fat. Some food processes also generate natural (edible) byproducts. Okara for instance, is what remains after soybeans are filtered during the production of soy milk and tofu.
An article on foodprint.org focusing on American food manufacturers indicated that 33% of food waste from manufacturing goes to animal feed. But even with this taken out of the equation, about 907 million kg of food wastage continues to be generated at US food manufacturing and processing plants. And that’s just in one country!
One organisation hoping to make a tiny dent in this equation is At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, a Singaporean culinary school that has embarked on an ambitious project to upcycle food scraps (that would typically be sent to landfills) from established food manufacturers into brand new culinary creations.
How it started
You might be wondering just what upcycling means in the context of food. According to the Upcycled Food Association, “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.”
At the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, the team was motivated to start an upcycling initiative called WellSpent after working with Professor Herve This, regarded as the father of molecular gastronomy and Andre Chiang, the celebrated chef of two-Michelin starred Restaurant Andre (which closed in 2018).
“We worked with them to design Note-by-Note cuisine (created by This), which is combining food compounds with traditional ingredients,” says Roy Rivera, the manager of At-Sunrice.
“This led the At-Sunrice R&D team to create WellSpent which focuses on high waste side streams and how to use the whole food rather than just take the best parts.
“We’ve connected with food manufacturers of tofu, soya sauce, coconut milk and bubble tea who produce hundreds of tonnes of waste annually that would have either gone to animal feed or a waste facility. We take their side streams and develop new products that have equal or higher value from the original source and put it back in the economy. It’s sort of like giving value back to food waste,” says Rivera.
According to Rivera, selecting food manufacturers for this project involves ticking off a rigorous set of criteria to ensure the food has been handled properly by the manufacturers and can be converted into something edible.
“When we choose companies, we look at their process and how they handle their waste, so we can be sure that they follow Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures and that the waste is safe for consumption and not mixed with other waste.
“It is difficult to just go to every food manufacturer and get their waste. We have to make sure that their waste is edible and has nutritional value or that we can turn it into different types of food,” says Rivera.
To date, the R&D chefs at At-Sunrice have transformed mango peel into a mango peel sauce and spent tea leaves and coffee grounds into tea and coffee butter cookies and cakes. The culinary school has also crafted moromi buns and moromi mala sauce, using moromi, a byproduct of soya sauce production that is said to have rich umami notes.
To test the market, At-Sunrice now sells these products on their website.
The culinary academy also organises a series of WellSpent dinners and teas, which utilises food waste to create entirely new meals for diners. Rivera says these meals differ slightly from their retail arm in that food scraps are used to create completely new dishes, that can range from nasi lemak to angku kuih.
“All the dishes have an ingredient that is upcycled, so for example, for the nasi lemak rice, instead of using regular coconut, we used coconut spent.
“And we created angku kuih with a filling made out of jackfruit seeds and pulp, which are normally thrown away by food vendors,” says Rivera.
Rivera admits that it does take some ingenuity and skill to craft new dishes out of what most chefs would essentially throw away.
“For us, the advantage is we are a culinary school, so we do have several chefs with different backgrounds to share their knowledge. So for us to develop the right recipe, it involves a lot of trial and error.
“I would say while the dish looks simple, it’s a complicated process because we have to make sure there is authenticity in terms of the food that we serve using spent ingredients,” says Rivera.
Moving forward, Rivera says At-Sunrice will be looking at working with a wider network of food manufacturers as well as introducing an extended range of foods made out of food waste.
“We are developing new products, like chips and beverages. It’s going to be wide, we are not just limiting ourselves to coffee and tea, we’re looking at high volume waste, like okara (a byproduct of soy milk and tofu production), coconut and eggshells, so these are the things that we’re currently looking at in terms of developing new products,” says Rivera.
Ultimately, At-Sunrice’s goal is also to educate consumers about the value of upcycled foods in terms of diverting food waste and creating new food experiences. The culinary school hopes to do this through a series of thematic events in Singapore called Sunday Luxe, which aims to disseminate more information about upcycling to the public.
“Our aim in WellSpent is to educate people on the importance of sustainability and how side streams can be safe and nutritious while still tasting great,” affirms Rivera.
This is especially important as a 2021 study published in Food & Nutrition Sciences revealed that only 10% of consumers are familiar with upcycled food products. On the flipside, once educated about them, 80% would actively seek out these products.
Another personal goal of Rivera and his team is to help mould the minds of young culinary arts students in the academy and redress the misconception that chefs should only use premium cuts and fresh ingredients in restaurant meals.
This is to break the vicious cycle and deeply entrenched mindsets many chefs have about only using the best ingredients. Truthfully, many young chefs are not even taught how to utilise cast-offs and food waste, which means there is a huge gap in knowledge.
What this translates to in reality is a LOT of waste. Most restaurants typically have about 40% of wastage from producing a dish that only requires 20% to 30% of the meat and vegetables that have been cut up.
“We are a culinary school first and we’ve qualified more than 20,000 students in the last 20 years and these people go and work in the industry and we have seen that these students, when they start working, they buy food, they cook, serve and they waste.
“So it becomes this cycle of getting chefs out there but we are not addressing this issue of waste, which is why the R&D we are doing at Sunrice is something we are sharing with the students – how to upcycle and look at food as a whole.
“Because these students will eventually end up in the industry, they will be working with other chefs, so whatever we teach them, they will be able to share it outside the school. It doesn’t matter what level they are in the kitchen, as long as they have the mindset about sustainability,” says Rivera.