“The Sustain Domain” was one of Innova Market Insights’ Top Trends for 2020—recognizing that consumers’ expectations around sustainability are higher than ever.

This expectation is pushing food and beverage manufacturers to prioritize eco-efficiency, especially in reducing food and plastic waste. In response, the food industry is increasingly committing to answering this more mindful consumer’s expectations in this area, then marketing this commitment through on-pack and promotional activities.

Consumers increasingly expect companies to invest in sustainability, and it’s no longer just about recyclable packaging. It’s about making the entire product lifecycle sustainable, from agricultural practices to resource-efficient factories, to food waste and packaging waste reduction. Innova Market Insights consumer research indicates that, on average, 87% of global consumers expected companies to invest in sustainability in 2019, up from 65% in 2018.

In the area of food waste, upcycling is the new recycling, as companies strive to follow a zero-waste approach by creating value from by-products. Meanwhile, in packaging, the focus is to use less of it, as and develop sustainable alternatives.


Packaging Progress

As consumer expectations continue to grow, companies are increasingly using packaging as a canvas to communicate sustainability. From 2015 to 2019, more than one-third of all food and beverage launches tracked by Innova Market Insights carried an ethical packaging claim (e.g. recycled or recyclable materials).

In mid-2019, for example, PepsiCo advanced the circular economy for plastics by announcing its LifeWtr purified water brand would move to 100% rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) in 2020. This is just one of its brand initiatives aimed at advancing the company’s goal to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. PepsiCo also has committed to use 25% recycled plastic content in all its plastic packaging.

Rival Coca-Cola also is breaking new ground in Sweden. There, the company has committed to make all its plastic bottles from rPET, starting in the first quarter of 2020 at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Jordbro.

This was another move reflecting Coca-Cola’s stated global ambition for a “World without Waste.” Officials say the company has a goal to reach 50% recycled content in plastic bottles, and to recover a bottle or can for every one it sells by 2030. In Western Europe, the company joined Coca-Cola European Partners (a bottler) in a plan to reach the goal of 50% recycled content in plastic bottles by 2023 (two years earlier than originally planned) and to accelerate to 100% recycled or renewable content thereafter.

PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, along with their other key US soft drinks rival, Keurig Dr Pepper, also are part of the American Beverage Association’s “Every Bottle Back” initiative, focusing on the development of a circular system for the production, use, recovery and remaking of bottles.

This runs in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, which will provide strategic scientific advice; and the Recycling Partnership and Closed Loop Partners, which will assist in deploying funds for the initiative. It was announced in early 2020 that the Dallas-Fort World Metroplex was to be the first region to receive financial support to this end. Beverage companies will start introducing voluntary messaging on packs beginning in 2020.


Meanwhile, Nestlé started 2020 announcing it would invest up to SFR2 billion to pioneer its shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics, and accelerate the development of innovative sustainable packaging solutions. This builds on its 2018 commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. It plans to reduce its use of virgin plastics by one-third during the same period, while also working with others to advance the circular economy and clean up plastic waste from oceans, lakes and rivers.

Along with these initiatives, there has also been increased activity in plant-based packaging, focusing on developing biodegradable and compostable alternatives from renewable sources, and in using renewable energy sources in product and packaging production.


Ingredient Upcycling

Reducing food waste is another area of considerable interest and activity. Innova Market Insights often sees this promoted by smaller, sometimes start-up operations and their sustainability message is right there from the start as a competitive point of difference.

For the record, it’s estimated that as much as one-third of the world’s food supply is wasted, with fruit and vegetables associated with the highest rate of spoilage. Perhaps not surprisingly then, there have been various “upcycling” initiatives aimed at reducing the level of waste in fresh produce.

One early advocate for ingredient upcycling was Wholesome Valley Foods, a Santa Monica, Calif., firm set up in 2010 to upcycle bananas. Founder and Chairman Caue Suplicy said he found 50% of all bananas harvested went to waste due to imperfections. The company has partnered with companies in Latin America to take the bananas that would otherwise go to waste and turn them into organic snacks under Wholesome Valley’s Barnana brand.

Wholesome Valley estimates that it since has upcycled more than 85 million bananas. And joining the company’s Original Chewy Banana Bites are newer flavors such as Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate, Coconut, Peanut Butter Cup and Tropical flavor varieties, along with sharing pouches and smaller snack-size packs. The latest pack format, launched in mid-2019, emphasizes not only that the product is upcycled, but also that it is organic, non-GMO, paleo-friendly, and grain-free.

Another relatively new US upcycled snacks business is Ripe Revival, a Greenville, N.C., firm that debuted last year. It grew out of “Glean,” a brother and sister partnership established in 2017 to find innovative ways to use farmers’ “excess” to create simple and healthy foods for consumers.

Ripe Revival’s flagship line is Nutrient Dense Blueberry Gummies, which launched in the second half of 2019. Officials say it’s crafted by extracting nutrients from upcycled produce, but also focusing on the nutritional benefits of blueberries, particularly in terms of antioxidants and vitamins. The range also now includes Grape Gummies, as well as Cinnamon Swirl Gummies. Ripe Revival notes the Cinnamon Swirl offering may taste like a cinnamon roll, but is actually made with vegetables, combining pumpkin and sweet potato with fresh cinnamon.

Elsewhere, brewers’ spent grains are being used in a range of snacks from ReGrained Inc. Starting in 2013, the San Francisco firm worked to convert those spent grains into what it called SuperGrain+, a nutrient-dense flour with plant proteins, prebiotic fibers, and micronutrients. Today, the company’s line of ReGrain Eat Up! Bars includes a Honey Cinnamon SuperGrain+ Immunity Bar with turmeric and Manuka honey; Chocolate Coffee SuperGrain+ Energy Bar with ginseng and coffee fruit; and a Blueberry Sunflower SuperGrain+ Antioxidant Bar with ginger and cranberry.

More recently, the company closed last year with a new line of ReGrained SuperGrain+ Puffs puffed snacks in a range of flavors including Aged Sharp Cheddar, Smoked Sea Salt & Pepper, Urban Garden, Mexican Street Corn, and Texas Pit BBQ.

Interest in upcycling also has introduced new ingredients, including simple waste byproducts from other processes. Renewal Mill, Oakland, Calif., created okara flour, a by-product of soy milk production, to make a range of bakery products. The company was set up to transform fibrous byproduct (soybean pulp) through drying and milling to produce an array of nutritious, high fiber and flavorful foods without synthetic processing or unnatural fortification. Okara flour is now used in the company’s one-to-one Baking Flour, Organic Okara Flour, Chocolate Brownie Mix, and Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Established companies also are moving to take advantage of the upcycling trend. One example involves The Republic of Tea, Larkspur, Calif., which created its Root to Petal sustainable teas that use every part of the plant so nothing goes to waste. Cascara Grape and Dandelion Mint varieties debuted in mid-2019. The company claims to have found creative ways to use upcycled ingredients and harvest by-products—with roots, twigs, stems, leaves, pods and crushed grape skins all taking their place in the drinks. The front of each tin (recyclable and made from 30% to 50% recycled steel) states “less waste, more taste.”

Manufacturers are starting to be more forthcoming with their sustainability credentials and sometimes this also is reflected not just prominently front-of-pack, but also in their names.

San Francisco’s Harmless Harvest Inc., the US premium coconut water brand, set itself up as different via its novel processing methods, organic ingredients, clean labeling, and fair trade commitment. It started with a mission to make the best coconut water in the most ethical way possible. It uses organic nam hom coconuts grown in Thailand, and features the Fair for Life certification to ensure a commitment to social accountability and fair trade.

The original coconut water, made by microfiltration rather than thermal pasteurization, has now been joined by a range of dairy alternatives, including protein and coconut beverages, yogurt drinks and cup yogurts. Many products are made with both coconut water and coconut meat, reducing waste and improving taste and texture.

Harmless Harvest Dairy Free Cultured Coconut Yogurt Drinks launched in early 2019 in Original, Strawberry, and Mango varieties. Later in the year, the company added Protein & Coconut Plant-Based Beverages in Toasted Coconut, Chocolate, and Vanilla Spice flavors. Most recently, in early 2020, Harmless Harvest added dairy free cup yogurts. Officials say they’re made with organic, hand-scooped meat from young Thai coconuts and they are naturally cultured with seven live and active yogurt strains. They are vegan, have a 92% fair trade content and come in Plain, Strawberry, Vanilla, and Blueberry flavors.

It’s clear that more consumers are increasingly focused on sustainability when choosing products and brands. In fact, you could say this aware and concerned audience now expects to see rapid movement toward whole product lifecycle sustainability. In turn, manufacturers are stepping up efforts to reduce packaging waste, become more resource efficient, and support sustainable agricultural practices. Many also recognize the importance of effective communication regarding company and brand sustainability credentials.

Originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Sustain Domain.