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Reduced food waste when the whole plant is used

We need to eat more greens and to make use of more of what we grow. Even though the entire cabbage plant is edible, currently only a small part finds its way to our plates – the rest is wasted.

We know that there are health benefits to eating more greens and we also know that our current patterns of consumption in the West are unsustainable.

“We need to eat less full stop; we need to eat more vegetable-based foods and we must ensure that the two thirds of our total food production that is not consumed actually gets used,” says Professor Karin Östergren, senior scientist at RISE Agrifood and Bioscience.

Perhaps we need to market new, or different, products? And perhaps these can be manufactured from existing raw produce that is not currently used for food, for example from side streams or waste products from existing vegetable cultivation? This will provide economic, environmental and, not least, health benefits.

“Naturally, this would be a triple win. We can produce more food from fewer resources, with major benefits for the environment and climate, as well as earn money from things that currently have no monetary value. And, of course, the greatest gain must be that the food we use resources to grow, refine and cook will actually end up in our stomachs.”

Brassicas are a superfood

Brassicas, vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and kale, are both healthy and locally produced, as well as being very much in vogue. Nevertheless, a significant part of every plant may be wasted, either ploughed back into fields, thrown away or used to produce biogas. Some side streams from brassica production could be better utilised, for example to create blending products for healthy vegetable-based foods. Brassicas are rich in fibre, and stems and leaves that are not currently used can instead become ingredients in other foodstuffs, such as soups, stews and gratins.

“Brassicas are good from a number of perspectives; aside from being very healthy they are also well-suited to cultivation in Sweden,” says RISE researcher Klara Löfkvist, who is studying how broccoli side streams can be put to use.

Innovation for more green proteins

Side streams from wheat, oats and potatoes can also become healthy, climate-smart and protein-rich foods – their carbon footprint is low and nutritionally they provide large amounts of protein. The ProVeg project is a collaboration between RISE, the City of Gothenburg and other partners to develop a foodstuff suitable for serving municipal facilities such as school dining halls. Young people tested a number of new foodstuffs in various dishes.

“What we saw was that many people look at the meal as a whole; if the sauce is good, it is less important if the patty tastes a little of oats. I think this offers a good lesson when considering the context in which we work with proteins. Even if it isn’t particularly easy to imitate a meatball or fish finger, in a good stew other proteins can taste just as good as meat,” says RISE researcher Sophia Wassén.

Consumers are a little too conservative

When it comes to new products on supermarket shelves, or even new variations on old ones, perhaps consumers also have a responsibility to keep an open mind. Many companies are ready and willing to test and launch completely new products; however, the question is, will they sell?

"Today’s consumers are somewhat conservative. People want to buy something they recognise, so they know how to cook it, the dishes it can be used in and what to accompany it with. Sure, you can make an entirely new product but how accepting will the market be of it?” asks Sophie Wassén.

Consumers also need to take a more uninhibited view than they do today regarding which parts of existing raw produce we eat.

“Many people used to eating broccoli heads and don’t think about the fact that their stems and other parts are equally edible. This probably has a great deal to do with tradition,” says Klara Löfkvist. 

In future, side streams will become raw materials

We may as well get used to the idea that utilising everything we grow will only become more common; we must make use of raw produce in its entirety and there is no shortage of side streams to exploit.

“The supply is practically unlimited! And it continues to grow. Instead as seeing these as side streams, we can see them as raw materials that can be made into new products. We will however need to adapt the product to the available material; if it isn’t suited to a meatball, then perhaps we can make a yogurt instead.” says Sophia Wassén.

Having spent 18 years working on food waste and resource efficiency in the food chain, Karin Östergren sees signs that these ideas are beginning to take root:

“If we do the same old things, we will achieve the same old results. It's all about thinking outside the box – and I believe that a movement is now underway. There is an increasing awareness and many people have understood that we can and must make a difference. Now we need to make the most of all of the creative solutions and initiatives that are bubbling up around this issue; it is this that will make the difference. That said, we must also be sensible about it; we need to develop both economically and environmentally sustainable solutions.”