Caroline Cotto has worn many hats in the food industry. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she worked as an intern for Michell Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign and wrote her senior thesis on digital food marketing directed at children. After graduation, she worked as an Assistant for the Nutrition and Communications Units at the UN World Food Programme in Cambodia, as a Farm Apprentice in Italy, and as a Business Associate for Techstars’ Farm to Fork Accelerator. Then in 2018, she became the chief operating officer of Renewal Mill, a California based start-up that aims to reduce food waste by repurposing fibrous byproducts. Renewal Mill’s first product is okara, a flour that is made by processing the leftover material from soy milk and tofu, but they plan to apply this technology to many other similar byproducts.
Caroline Cotto, COO of Renewall Mill and Board President of the Upcycled Food Association
Photo from https://carolinecotto.info/
So, to start off, I asked Caroline how she got involved in the food industry, particularly in so many different ways.
CC: I've always been really interested in food. My parents own an ice cream store, so I grew up in the industry. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to work on the health side of food, so my degree was human science with a focus on nutrition. I got an in-depth look at childhood obesity and realized why so many people are obese in this country. It is not because of their individual choices, but because of the food system that they have access to and the food that is marketed to them. It's hard to change individual behavior, but it's achievable when you make the good choice the easy choice. When I went farming, I got a more in-depth look at how we grow food and what the food system looks like from the perspective of the people producing it. From there, my interest in food blossomed into food innovation and reduced food waste as part of that innovation.
Caroline and I then shifted gears to talk about a specific innovation in particular: byproducts, what they are, and how Renewal Mill is trying to give them a new reputation.
CC: Byproducts are fibers that we take out of our food, and fiber is what Americans need the most. If we added one gram of fiber to the average American diet per day, it would save the American healthcare system something like 12 billion dollars a year. Having sustainable options in the food system will drive better nutrition for everyone.
There is a common misconception of byproducts. Many people think, "Oh, they were going to throw it away. It must be free. It must be cheap." We are trying to show the value of these products. Just because it was arbitrarily labeled as waste doesn’t mean that it lacks nutritional value. It’s an organic, non-GMO product with a lot of nutritional value, so it’s priced competitively. We get the raw material for free, but we pay for the processing of it because we use a co-location model. We place equipment inside our partners' manufacturing facilities to capture and process byproducts before they leave the factory floor. By partnering with these companies, we help them reduce their environmental impact and serve as a solution for their off-take.
A side-by-side nutritional comparison of okara and standard white flour
Renewal Mill currently offers several products, all of which are made with okara. These include a 1-to-1 Baking Flour, Dark Chocolate Brownie Mix, Organic Okara Flour, and Okara Chocolate Chip Cookies. I asked Caroline to whom they were selling their products, and which products seemed to sell best?
CC: We have a split business model. The company is both B2B (Business to Business) and B2C (Business to Consumer). So, on the B2B side, we are selling bulk ingredients to other CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies. We sell to both small and emerging brands that can push new products out faster and to large fortune 500 food companies that take years to do product development. And then on the B2C side, our ready-to-eat products were very popular because people were looking for convenient snacking. The majority of our sales were to offices for snacks, but that has almost completely died down because of COVID19. So now, we are doing nearly all of our business through retail, grocery, e-commerce, and direct-to-consumer through our website and Amazon. The baking mixes have been selling really well because people are at home baking more. Baking mixes are a category ripe for disruption, as people are looking for more sustainable, better-for-you, and vegan options. We are looking into developing cake mixes, cookie mixes, and quick breads.
The final product of Renewal Mill's Dark Chocolate Brownie Mix
Caroline then explained how Renewal Mill would not just stop with Okara flour, however:
CC: We want to be the go-to supplier for all of your upcycled ingredients. It takes time and money to commercialize each new ingredient, so we are starting with the plant-based milk byproducts. Our first ingredient is okara, but our second ingredient will be oat milk pulp flour from the oat milk process. Once that is up and running, we will continue to work in the plant-based milk space, at least for the time being.
At this point, you might be wondering what upcycling is. Upcycling is essentially reusing otherwise wasted materials for some other purpose, but there is no formal definition- yet. Caroline and others started the Upcycled Food Associated (UFA) to fill this knowledge gap.
CC: There was no centralized resource for all the companies doing upcycling, and no way to educate the public in a centralized manner. So, we started a Facebook group more than a year ago, trying to get all of the people practicing upcycling in the same virtual room. Then Turner Wyatt (a prominent name in the food industry) was focused on creating a formal organization. We partnered with him and founded the Upcycle Food Association back in October of 2019. Since then, upcycling has been a rising trend. It is surfacing on top trend lists and headlining a lot of big conferences.
This month, we are releasing the formal definition of upcycling, created by a task force of government, academics, and industry folks. Using that definition, we plan to create an upcycled food certification, so that current and future products can be certified upcycled. This would help consumers at the point-of-sale understand what it means to purchase upcycled foods.
The UFA has over 50 brand members and counting. Check out their website for a full list
Upcycling is a great way to reduce food waste, but as Caroline pointed out, it is not a silver bullet.
CC: Food waste happens along every part of the food system. At-home and consumer waste comprise about 40% of our total waste. Buying upcycled products is not a solution to the entire food waste problem. We need to ensure farmers are gleaning everything from their fields. We need to tell people not to over-purchase food at the grocery store and teach them how to cook all of their food appropriately. It is a multi-spectrum problem. Upcycling food waste is one part of the solution but not the entire puzzle. It’s a way to use your dollar to fight food waste, amongst other ways that you can fight it in your personal life.
I then asked Caroline how do we get people to even care about food waste? How do we instill a sense of urgency? How do we convince society this is not a first world problem?
CC: Finding ways to use all the food that we grow is something the entire world needs. If we're going to see feed 10 billion people by 2050, we need to have more efficiency in our food system. That means ensuring that the food we are growing is nutritionally valuable and that nothing is being left in the field. Having a more sustainable food system means having a healthier planet in general. Also, the people most affected by having a climate-crises are those living on the margins. People in poor countries are being disproportionately affected by rising sea tides. It all comes back to the choices of First World countries affecting third world countries. More than it being a first world problem then, it is a First World responsibility. We are a large part of the system and why it is the way it is.
FAO video that explains the global burden of food waste
Lastly, I asked Caroline what she thought about COVID19 and sustainability: is it helping or hurting environmental efforts, particularly those in the food space?
CC: I think it has done both. Right now, we are in a panic mode. We are trying to protect ourselves, which results in more plastic (through gloves, masks, and so forth), but overall, this pandemic has shed light on how inefficient and broken our food system is. It has shown people that we need to use all the food we grow, that we need to be more efficient. Its driving conscious capitalism and encouraging people to use their dollar to affect change. Overall, I think it will have a positive long-term impact, particularly in the upcycling movement. For us personally, it has been a good time to introduce consumers to new products. When all the traditional all-purpose flour is gone from the shelf, but okara flour is still there, you might be willing to try it. And if you like, we might be able to grow the adoption of these new upcycled foods and drive the demand. In this initial phase of panic, however, it has been challenging for every part of the food system to practice sustainability.
Caroline Cotto and Renewal Mill are blazing a trail for upcycled products, and you can join them. Next time you bake that quarantine banana bread, perhaps you can use okara flour in place of standard white flour. To purchase okara and start your upcycling journey, visit their website or order from Amazon.