About 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, according to the United Nations. Even worse, with about 38 percent occurring in production and processing, a significant amount of that wasted food never reaches a store shelf or plate.
With numbers like 42 million tons of spent brewery barley discarded and 20 billion pounds of coffee cherries dumped into landfills, rivers, and streams every year, a slew of entrepreneurs have jumped in to make sure these resources don’t go to waste. Making use of a wide range of surplus foods—like brewery waste, coffee bean fruit, vegetable trimmings, and “cosmetically challenged” produce—aptly named companies like Renewal Mills, ReGrained, and Forager Project are putting rescued food to productive and, if all goes well, tasty use.
With all this recovered food popping up in grocery aisles, we got to wondering: are they actually good, or do they taste like, well, garbage?
So, we set out to compare some the best new rescued food products alongside their conventionally produced counterparts. The criteria were simple: find products that 1) taste good enough to eat, and 2) have some sustainability street cred. Products were rated based on unscientific blind taste tests among whoever was passing through the kitchen that day.
The bottom line: Although upcycled food presents an exciting opportunity to make the most of the food we produce, not all are ready for prime time—or easy to find. Here we spare you the awful ones and offer the best of the bunch.
Upcycled Barnana Dark Chocolate Chewy Banana Bites (3.5-ounce bag $4.99) vs. Banana Chocolate Chip Larabar (1.6-ounce bar $1.50)
Made from “imperfect” organic bananas, Barnana’s Dark Chocolate Chewy Banana Bites are inspired by founder Caue Suplicy’s family recipe from Brazil. A delicious combination of partially dehydrated banana chunks coated in a dark chocolate shell, each bite-sized piece is equal parts fruit and confection. They’re chewy and sweet, resembling a large, banana-filled Raisinet®.
In contrast, Banana Chocolate Chip Larabars are all about the banana, with the chocolate chips (and dates and almonds) taking a back seat to the fruit. Unsurprisingly, both are almost identical nutritionally per serving size.
Verdict: Both are tasty, made of whole ingredients and fair-trade chocolate, and will surely cure your banana hankerings.
Upcycled Haymaker’s Vodka from Ventura Spirits (750ml bottle $29.99) vs. Blue Ice American Potato Vodka (750ml bottle $19.99).
Whenever possible, the folks at Ventura Spirits make their liquid refreshments from local Central Valley farm surplus. Haymaker’s Vodka, made from fresh, surplus California apples and potatoes, is smooth, almost creamy, with a hint of fruity sweetness.
Blue Ice Vodka is also domestically produced in Idaho and made from sourced from the state’s iconic potatoes Although Blue Ice tastes solidly neutral, it has a bit of an assertive alcohol taste which leaves a little burn on the finish.
Verdict: Although both are smoother than their grain-based counterparts, Haymaker’s has far more finesse.
Upcycled Wasabi Green Chips by Forager Project (5-ounce bag $3.49). vs. Doritos Spicy Nacho Chips (9.75-ounce bag $3.99)
If you’re looking for a great way to get a hit of your favorite nasal clearing sushi bar condiment, Forager Project Wasabi Greens Chips have you covered. These re-imagined “tortilla” chips, made from pressed vegetable plant pulp upcycled from a juicing operation, are thick and almost grainy.
In comparison, Doritos Spicy Nacho Chips get their kick from onion powder, garlic powder, and other “flavors and spices.” While not particularly natural tasting, they have a noticeable corn-flavored undertone and classic thin, crisp texture.
Verdict: If you like your chips coarse and thick and your heat upfront, the Wasabi Chips will do the trick. If you prefer a smoother, thinner chip and fire at the end, the Dorito’s heat lingers longer.
Upcycled Slingshot Coffee Co. Cascarnold (12-ounce bottle $4) vs. AriZona Arnold Palmer Lite (16-ounce can $1.79)
Summer may feel like far off, but Arnold Palmer lovers no longer have to wait because the folks at Slingshot Coffee Co. created Cascarnold, a mildly caffeinated, sweet-tart concoction made of coffee cherries or cascara, the oft-discarded fruit skin surrounding coffee beans, lemon juice, and cane sugar. A refreshing iced tea and lemonade drink, it has floral and natural lemon notes with a hint of earth.
In comparison, widely available AriZona Arnold Palmer Lite is more lemonade with a hint of tea. Like many ready-to-drink iced teas, it is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and sucralose, and quite sugary.
Verdict: Slingshot Coffee Co.’s Cascarnold is a less cloyingly sweet, all-natural take on an Arnold Palmer, whereas the AriZona Arnold Palmer Lite’s HFCS-sweetened recipe is not much better than a soda.
Upcycled ReGrained Chocolate Stout Energy Bars (1.4-ounce bar $2-3) vs. Kind Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond Bar (1.4-ounce bar $2)
Without a doubt, the ReGrained Chocolate Coffee Stout Energy Bar is a grown-up energy bar. After the beer brewing process, a blend of protein, fiber, and micronutrients are left behind. ReGrained upcycles this into the SuperGrain+ flour used as a base for their energy bars while spent chocolate stout and rescued coffee cherries bring the dark coffee flavor and supply caffeine for a double whammy of taste and upcycling. The result is a dark, savory snack with a toothsome texture.
The Kind Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond Bar, on the other hand, is dominated by whole almonds, chocolate (with a little mocha flavor), and a caramel-like chewy component, making it more satisfying for your sweet tooth. That said, the Kind bar has twice the fat (15 grams vs. 7 grams), which might be the biggest downside to its sweetness.
Verdict: Two completely different beasts; the ReGrained bar has real hints of coffee and is a savory snack, while the Kind bar is sweet, nutty, and more of a healthy candy bar.
Upcycled Noosh Almond Protein Powders (1.15-pound pouch $34.95; fifteen 1.23-ounce packs $39.95) vs. Blessed! Plant-Based Protein Powder (1.92-pound tub $34.95)
Noosh Almond Protein Powders are for anyone who wants a protein powder made from whole food, in this case nuts. Derived from the production spin-off of almond butters, Noosh comes in three varieties—unflavored, chocolate, and vanilla bean—all of which taste natural, nutty, and are packed with natural fiber.
Blessed! Plant-Based Protein Powder, made of pea protein isolate, also comes in three flavors—salted caramel, chocolate coconut, and vanilla chai. Per serving, Blessed! packs in the protein (25 grams compared to 17 grams for the vanilla Noosh).
Verdict: If nutritional content is primary, both powders offers something different. Noosh is the more palatable powder.
Upcycled Renewal Mill Okara Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies (1.1-ounce cookie $2.50; 8-ounce bag of flour $4.50) vs. Lenny & Larry’s Complete Chocolate Chip Cookie (4-ounce cookie $2.49)
I’ve been told that finding delicious cookies is one of the greatest challenges for a vegan. For those searching for a plant-based chocolate chip cookie, both of these vegan alternatives have something to offer. Of the two, the Okara Dark Chocolate Chip Cookie is the more palatable, but be forewarned, it tastes much more like cookie dough than cookie. Made from okara, a rescued “superfood” harvested from the soybean pulp (also known as “tofu dregs”), these cookies are a slightly nutty, crumbly shortbread with lots of plump and chocolatey chips.
In contrast, Lenny & Larry’s Complete Chocolate Chip Cookie is a protein bar masquerading as a soft, bready cookie. Like a protein bar, the Complete Cookie has a somewhat processed, chalky taste and small, slightly unnaturally flavored chips.
Verdict: Neither of these vegan treats will satisfy an old-fashioned chocolate cookie craving. If you like cookie dough, the Renewal Mill cookie is a tasty, whole food option. If you’re after a protein bar alternative, the Complete Cookie is the better bet.
Disclaimer: Some of these products were obtained via complimentary samples.