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Did you know that in Canada, roughly 50% of the food produced is lost or wasted? In the latest episode of the Beyond Research Podcast, we’re exploring the ways scientific advancements in nutrition and food science are helping the agri-food industry better manage this growing problem. Listen to learn how local researchers Dr. Darren Burke of Outcast Foods and Dr. Marcia English of St.FX are working directly with the people who produce our food to create new products and generate new markets using food waste and by-products.
Mission: Sustainable Bioeconomy
Darren Burke 0:03
Here in North America, approximately 40% of the food that’s made never actually makes it to our homes to be eaten it gets discarded and wasted.
Marcia English 0:13
A lot of the challenges with food waste are often due to poor practices in efficient processes. As we support this research in nutrition and food science, we can actually help to bring about change in how we process our foods.
Rhys Waters 0:34
Typically, when we hear about research in the field of Nutrition and Food Science, the focus is on human health, improving the quality of food products for human consumption. But for many researchers in this field, the health of our planet has become a major concern. Our growing population is put an increased demand on our agri-food, industry, and natural resources such as water, soil and land. Yet a lot of the food we produce is wasted. Welcome to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by research Nova Scotia. In this episode, we will speak with researchers who specialize in the field of nutrition and food science. Each are contributing to advancements in technology and industrial practices that could drastically change how we think about a managed food waste from the agri-food industry. These researchers are working directly with the people who produce our food to create new products and generate new markets using food waste and by-products. innovations in this area are critical if we envision a thriving agri-food sector that is also sustainable. Like the great musician Will.I.Am once said, “waste is only waste if we waste it.”
Marcia English 1:56
I love food science. So it requires a good background of biology, chemistry, physics. And then it’s great to apply that knowledge into the application of food products.
Rhys Waters 2:11
This is Dr. Marcia English, an assistant professor of human nutrition at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Her key research areas of interest include looking at challenges that face the food industry, and using fundamental research and applied research to help identify and validate solutions.
Marcia English 2:32
Food waste and food loss is actually still a very important challenge for the industry right now not only impacts the nutritional quality of the food, but it also has a big impact on the environment. And this is because a lot of the waste when it’s decomposed contributes to methane, as we know is a very important greenhouse gas. And of course, that’s not good for our environment.
Rhys Waters 3:01
Food waste refers to all food that is grown, harvested, processed, manufactured or prepared for human consumption, but is never eaten by people. Agriculture and agri-food Canada estimate that more than 50% of all food produced is lost or wasted. That’s over 35 million tonnes. Personally, I never leave a morsel on the plate. But we asked Marcia how and why are we wasting so much food?
Marcia English 3:27
Food waste and food loss can occur for different reasons. When we think about food, we think of the food cycle. So in the food supply chain, and at the very start of that food supply chain is a step that we talk about as food production. So there are different steps along the food supply chain. There’s food production, handling and storage, food processing, distribution and marketing and consumption. And as you think about each of these different steps, we can actually see food loss at different stages. Now globe globally, what we’re seeing is that in developing countries, a lot of the food loss actually happens at the food production stage. More for developed countries, we see a lot of this food loss at the consumption stage and the processing stage.
Rhys Waters 4:20
The processing stage represents the phase when foods are prepared for market. For example, the packaging of food, the allocation of best before dates and the processing of grading a common practice involved in the selection of the best looking fruits and vegetables for sale. A recent report from Second Harvest titled “The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste”, estimates that 34% of food waste in Canada occurs during the processing stage, more than double of what is wasted at the household consumption stage. So what can be done to reduce waste in general, and particularly at the processing stage?
Marcia English 4:56
Research is so important to helping to address is the challenge of food waste. Because with research, I use the word innovation, and with innovation comes change. A lot of the challenges with food waste are often due to poor practices, inefficient processes. As we support this research in nutrition and food science, we can actually help to bring about change in how we process our foods. So in the production process in the processing of our foods, if we have more efficient systems that can actually help to reduce the food waste, I use the word innovative, sustainable agriculture, it’s actually using what we have, even changing a process, recycling it to make the process more efficient, and reducing ultimately food waste.
Rhys Waters 5:54
Through their research, food scientists like Marcia are working with producers to find opportunities to reintegrate food waste from the processing stage, back into the supply chain, as new products that meet consumer needs, and create added value for local producers.
Marcia English 6:10
And we think of value added products, I guess what comes to mind initially is actually either adding value to a process or changing or transform a product from its original state to a more valuable state. So big challenge with foods such as fruits and vegetables is their low shelf life. But when we process them, for example, making jams or jellies, we’re actually these are preservation techniques that actually increase the shelf life of these products. So we can actually add value by extending the quality and extending shelf life. But sometimes when we think of value added, the first thing that comes to mind is the economic gain. But we also need to balance that with the sustainability in agriculture to ensure that there’s a benefit to society, as well as to the environment. Sometimes farmers want to extend their the products that they’re offering to the consumer. But it’s not necessarily a sustainable venture, in the sense that it could cost more labor, it could cost more inputs for the farm. And then the end product is not necessarily more environmentally sustainable. So as we think of value added, it’s there’s always that challenge to ensure that the processes that we’re using for the value added are efficient. They’re environmentally friendly, and also sustainable.
Rhys Waters 7:46
This is where Marcia has expertise in food science, and nutrition shines, she brings her knowledge of food at the molecular level, directly to food producers. And together, they come up with creative ways to upcycle waste into new products that are both business savvy and sustainable. One of our current projects is making use of waste from one of Nova Scotia largest exports. And one of the main reasons why I moved here, lobster.
Marcia English 8:14
But our interest was when we talk about waste streams was looking at the lobster shell, no shells. crustaceans are great sources of a compound known as kiting. And so we’ve been looking at using a biological method to extract the chitin. Now traditionally, the chitin is extracting using chemical processes, it’s more, you get a better yield. But we talked about sustainability. And here’s another example of using chemicals creates waste, which creates other problems for the environment with the positive notes waste, and often they’re deposited either in the ocean, and other water supply systems, which can actually obviously create challenges with the environment. So we opted to use sustainable, more bio friendly method of extraction. And we’re using lactic acid bacteria. So these bacteria during fermentation again, can actually remove the chitin.
Rhys Waters 9:27
Marcia and her team, using the eco-conscious method of extracting the chitin to add value to lobster shells that otherwise would have been waste. Once extracted she incorporates the chitin into another product designed to extend the shelf life of seafood and cut down on packaging waste, a biodegradable saran wrap
Marcia English 9:48
Another one of the challenges with food waste is the packaging material. As you well know we want to actually do away with plastics but in order to do that, we need alternatives, we’re targeting like a saran wrap. So we’re actually using plant based ingredients to generate packaging material. And we’re targeting this packaging material for seafoods right now. And so our material is great because it’s biodegradable. So it won’t be a challenge to, to the environment. And so we’re still actually trying to optimize the formulation for this packaging material. So we’re currently working on that study right now, at characterizing films that have the chitin incorporated. So we’re actually looking at how adding the chitin impacts either the strength or physical properties, the clarity of the saran wrap is sort of a challenge that we’re trying to work right now. Because when we add the protein actually changes the color of the packaging. So it doesn’t look white, per se, it’s sort of an off white color, doesn’t mean it doesn’t do the same function. But you know, for consumers, they actually have certain expectations. So that’s part of the challenge that we’re trying to address right now. So ultimately, it’s the consumer that decides whether or not a food product is acceptable.
Rhys Waters 11:20
If successful, Marcia’s research could contribute value to the local lobster industry, by upcycling and industry byproduct, the shells to create a product that extends the shelf life of seafood in practice. Not to mention, she’ll also be reducing the industry’s reliance on plastic packaging. Currently, Marcia’s work is focused on diverting waste byproducts. But that’s not the only approach to upcycling that nutrition and food science can help us with, we asked for thoughts on upcycling rescued food, the rejected apples and tomatoes, aka tomatoes that would normally be thrown out.
Marcia English 11:55
I think that’s actually a great way to to reduce our food loss actually recovering a lot of the foods. An important point to remember is that there there is research currently happening right now for for scientists who are actually trying to recover some of the functional ingredients in foods that would normally be thrown out. So think of bioactive compounds that are found in fruits and vegetables, things have freeze dried foods that would normally be thrown out. And then we generate a powder that also contains active ingredients that can then be recycled into a different product. So I think this is when we talk about these processes. I use the word innovative, sustainable agriculture.
Rhys Waters 12:50
Marcia is right. There are researchers working this out. In fact, one of those researchers happens to be in Nova Scotia, and he’s taken his product to market.
Darren Burke 12:59
Upcycling is the next big thing and it’s a trend. it’s here to stay. It’s not a fad, and it’s going to continue to grow. Because as companies similar to ours, discover better ways to process and keep that food in the supply chain. It’s going to become more prevalent as an ingredient inclusion in everything from baby food to cosmetics to smoothies to granola bars and crackers, etc.
Rhys Waters 13:28
This is Dr. Darren Burke, founder of Outcast Foods located in Dartmouth Nova Scotia. Outcast is the first patent pending zero waste upcycling technology company that is actively reducing food waste while satisfying consumer demands.
Darren Burke 13:44
So we have two aspects of our business we have an isolated ingredient business where we make ingredients that we sell b2b to other big food producers. But we also have a supplement line that we make available to that uses our upcycled fruits and vegetables and we have protein powders, we have five different flavors of a really delicious and nutritious plant based protein that we have in market and it’s sells in about 500 stores right now across Canada. We have a terrific production facility and a great group of people working the business here based in Nova Scotia, we’re building our second facility in Ontario, and that will increase our ability to save a million pounds of food every month, which is still a it sounds like a big number, but it’s still a really small amount of food given the size of food waste that takes place every day and in Canada in the US.
Rhys Waters 14:37
I know what you’re thinking at this point. What exactly does Darren mean when he says upcycling fruits and vegetables that had once accepted the supply chain? Where is he getting these fruits and vegetables? And is this a protein powder I’d really want to try?
Darren Burke 14:51
When you think about upcycling food. I think oftentimes people go to that awful spot in their head where you’re pulling that really off gnarly looking food off the bottom of the green bin that still has nutritional value in it. But science hasn’t caught up to being able to figure out how to process and utilize it. So I think the best visual I think for people to think about is that end of the food waste continuum that starts at the farmer’s field where you think about food that we find on the grocery store shelf, it’s typically perfectly shaped in such as let’s say cauliflower, it’s got a very pure white look to it. There’s a fair bit of cauliflower that gets left on the farmer’s fields simply because it doesn’t look right or it’s irregular shaped, and they have to trim it in order to shape it. So in doing that, approximately 25% of that produce just gets discarded purely for cosmetic reasons. And so when consumers go in their head to think about upcycled food, they need to think about those irregular or misshapen or oddly twisted or colored fruits and vegetables, the Misfits, or the quote unquote, outcasts, they get cast away purely for cosmetic reasons, and our business rescues those. And when you think about ingredients, we offer everything from avocado to zucchini, and all the letters of the alphabet in between.
Rhys Waters 16:17
Darren and his team Outcast work with local farmers, processors and retailers to rescue they’re less than perfect supply of products that don’t meet grading standards during the processing stage. Outcast is picking up speed quickly, and becoming a leader in this field, which Darren assures is certainly not a fad.
Darren Burke 16:36
Upcycling is it’s a really emerging trend in food and beverage, but it’s been around for a while. And it’s really only become a thing that’s more prevalent in news media since 2021. And it’s growing at an incredibly rapid pace. And the reason for that is, I think more than ever, we’re really aware of the impact of food and the supply chain. And I think in some ways, as a result of what the pandemic has done to impact her ability to shop and, and buy groceries and where to buy the groceries. So it’s brought a lot of attention on the supply chain for food. And here in North America. Approximately 40% of the food that’s made never actually makes it to our homes to be eaten, it gets discarded and wasted. The option with upcycling food, it’s almost like a necessity. When you look at the problems we’re having with feeding our growing population. And then you look at the damage that the ways that we do grow food to feed our population is doing to the planet. upcycling of food has that ability to mitigate a lot of those negative changes rescuing the food that’s gone to waste cuts down on greenhouse gases and groundwater pollution and then also all the natural resources that went into growing in the first place such as water and then the human capital and all the wonderful things that come from our soil and supporting the soil, the natural biome in the soil.
Rhys Waters 18:11
Though, the impacts of upcycling food as a method of diverting waste to help our planet and support our industry sounds great, like Marcia, Darren understands that the consumer needs to like his product. Otherwise, all this amazing effort is pointless.
Darren Burke 18:27
They learned this from my last company that if you can have the most amazing ingredients inside and the most nutritious ingredients, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t mix well and taste well. consumers will do that initial buy because they want to support the initiative and all the good things you’re doing but they won’t continue to buy if they’re not enjoying it. So we spent a lot of time flavoring it so it looks green, and it looks like it would be healthy and awful. But it’s delicious.
Rhys Waters 19:00
Okay, so this is a little bit off script. I thought I should definitely try some of Dr. Burke’s products. So I’ve got Outcast upcycled nutrition and it’s the supergreens, pineapple coconut, lions mane, reishi, and chaga. I’m probably pronouncing those wrong. It’s plant based is all upcycled and it’s sustainable. So I’m going to give it a go. Let’s picture that Darren Burke on the back. Got a scoop it’s one scoop, two to four ounces of water. And then you shake it to that simple. That’s gone in my shaker thing and put the lid on give it a shake. The powders goes kind of kind of almost like a pistachio green color to it which I’m a big fan of pistachio ice cream. So I find that quite appealing and it’s got a really nice actually smells like the flavors it says on the website and give it a shake.
So she might give her a few more minutes. Smells good. And open this up. Okay, cool. So so the powder seems to have shook nicely with it. So I’m gonna I’m gonna give it a try was actually really nice. The powder has a nice kind of gives a nice creamy texture to the water, it seems to mix in quite nicely. And it’s got a kind of a citrusy aftertaste or the pineapple The aftertaste at least Yeah, that’s actually a really pleasant drink. Having tried these kinds of things before, with all the weird dusty clumps that you get this is is not that so science is winning muscle I can see. Yeah, I’m sold upcycled food is is delicious. At Outcast the research behind there. upcycle products is an ongoing process. The company has a team of scientists dedicated to making sure that all bits of the wasted food can be up cycled into new products that will be embraced by consumers.
Darren Burke 21:03
As a science guy, right I when my day is looking at financial spreadsheets and doing pitches, and I’m getting fatigued, I drop into our food science team and just basically look over their shoulders because I love what they do they they’re developing the protocols. So another complicated piece, in addition to the supply chain is that every fruit and vegetable requires a different recipe in order to optimize the output. So if you think about it, it’s not like we’re throwing this in an oven and pushing a button and it goes to one temperature and it works for everything. It’s not it doesn’t work that that would be really nice. But they’re developing these unique protocols. So kale might take four hours of preparation to get an optimal nutritional value. And make sure that there’s no bad bugs in there. So a key piece for our business, right, they would be awful if we’re rescuing food, but putting, you know contaminated food back out there. So it’s clean, it’s high purity, it’s nutrient dense. So the nutritional aspects are really important. So our food science team, they work on that one of the things that for people that listen to this, you might think that you you can or can’t eat the the rinds or the skins on fruits and vegetables. And so part of the food science team role is to figure out which fruits and vegetables you can eat the skin or the rind, like most people wouldn’t think that you can eat the rind on watermelon, but it’s actually pretty nutritious. There’s lots of valuable nutrients in the rind and on citrus fruits, there’s all kinds of really beneficial polyphenols and bio-actives. In the skin of a of an orange, we just typically don’t eat them. But when you can combine them as a whole food, and you dehydrate them and then powder them. You don’t notice some of the bitterness that typically comes with the rind on a fruit. And it can add a ton of nutritional value. So we do a lot of experiments around that. What can you include what can’t you include in our finished products.
Rhys Waters 23:08
as a self proclaimed science guy, Darren’s passion for the cause. And the science came easily. In his opinion, the hurdle in his work is not lack of caring by the research community or industry. But a disconnect between the two. He hopes Outcast can be viewed as a success story that inspires other researchers who may be looking to cross boundaries and commercialize or implement their ideas into practice.
Darren Burke 23:31
I guess I’m a bit of a bleeding heart towards the scientists of the researchers. And I always I always tell people, you know, as a PhD, and like most scientists, we know a lot about a very small thing. Very small, tight focus. And we know a little about a lot of other things. And the one thing that I discovered, you know, after being a scientist and working in an academic setting for 10 years is oftentimes the voice of the scientist isn’t really heard beyond the academic publications that are read by such a small number of individuals, typically other academics, and they don’t get to commercialize their ideas. So I’m a big proponent of supporting those academics that are really truly smart, cutting edge people trying to figure out how to commercialize some of that information, or at least partnering with others that can help them commercialize their information and their idea, because ultimately, that’s going to make for a better future. And I think economically, our country and our cities and the world depends upon these really smart scientists that getting out of the lab and and sharing some of these great ideas with people that are more business sales and marketing savvy and figuring out a way to bring that to market.
Rhys Waters 24:55
The issue of food waste is complex and there is no single answer to the problem. However, it’s clear that as scientists like Dr. English and Dr. Burke, continue to partner with industry to push boundaries in the area of Nutrition and Food Science, we will get closer to a future where waste is viewed as an opportunity for innovation, to increase food availability, save consumers and businesses money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthen our food systems.
Darren Burke 25:24
So the vision is, is a world without food waste, simply put, is how do we all as a population, reduce the amount of food that goes to waste? what we’re doing with our technology is one aspect. And I’m sure there’s going to be terrific entrepreneurs and businesses that come along, which will have another creative way to do this. We work incredibly hard. And it’s been challenging and we have terrific partnerships that really are supporting the endeavor.
Marcia English 25:53
It’s been a very respectful and collegial collaboration with with our local farmers. We need to ensure that we increase trust in the industry, the food industry, and part of doing science is not just for doing science, but to use that science to actually advance our food system we need to connect farmers with people are actually doing the pertinent research. So sometimes the farmers just don’t know who these researchers are. So I want to connect the technology with the the agricultural practice, we want to make sure that farmers have the right knowledge that they require, so that their processes can be modified to ensure that they’re using their resources in a responsible way, and that the waste that’s produced from these farms can be reduced.
Rhys Waters 26:54
Since recording this episode, outcast foods announced a partnership with New York nonprofit Rethink Foods. Outcast has committed to donating some of its products to Rethink to use in providing nutritious meals to those who need it most through churches, community kitchens and NGOs in the New York area within the next year, Outcast will have the capacity to divert over a million pounds of food per month from being wasted. Thank you for listening to Beyond Research brought to you by Research Nova Scotia. For more information, visit researchns.ca. My name is Rhys Walters, and we’ll see you next time
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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Dr. Marcia English is an Assistant Professor in Human Nutrition at St. Francis Xavier University where she leads the X Food Research Lab. She’s using her background in food chemistry to address challenges and add value to Nova Scotia’s farming and food production community.
Dr. Darren Burke is the founder and CEO of Outcast Foods, the first patent-pending zero waste upcycling technology company that is actively reducing food waste. Outcast works with local farmers, processors and retailers to create a supply chain where the less than perfect supply of fruits and veggies can re-enter the food chain, lighter and better than ever.