Bread, beer and circular food

A linear economy

In my podcast episode with Kristen Fuller from Toast Ale, she highlights that 44% of bread in the UK is wasted – this figure blew my mind!  If seeing that figure didn’t result in a jaw drop, then perhaps this will, 20 million slices of bread are wasted every day in the UK, yes, every day.  Waste from bread and many products we consume results from being part of a linear model sometimes described as a take-make-waste system.  In the case of bread, its principal ingredient is wholegrain cereals – these are grown and ‘taken’ from the land.  These cereals are processed, producing flour, and when added to yeast, water and other ingredients, bread is ‘made’.  The bread is sold and any left-over bread, from manufacture or consumers, is often thrown away, making it the ‘waste’ bit. 

A circular economy

A circular economy, in contrast, aims to eliminate waste and keep resources within the system.  In the case of bread, instead of throwing the waste away, particularly the fresh, surplus waste, such as the bread ends discarded in making commercial sandwiches, it is kept in use.  Toast Ale, for example, are taking some of this surplus and using it as an ingredient in brewing their craft beers.  The guys at Toast reckon UK brewers could cut bread waste by half by using 10% bread within their grain bill.

Food waste and making beer

We know that one-third of food is wasted, so creating new ways of reducing it or reusing it has to be a good thing.  It saves resources and reduces carbon emissions, as demonstrated in the case of using bread waste in beer.  Toast replaces 30% of malted barley with bread waste (the malting process refers to the soaking of grains to force germination and drying).  The malted barley is a primary contributor to beer’s carbon footprint, owing to the land used to grow the barley and the energy required in the malting process.  Consequently, this bread waste swap reduces the barley needed, resulting in less land use and a lower carbon footprint.

Within the brewing process, malted barley is mashed and soaked in water.  The liquid (known as wort) is drained, boiled with hops, cooled and fermented with yeast, conditioned, and results in beer.  The leftover malt after mashing is no longer needed and is known as spent grain.  Rather than putting it in landfills, other options are available.  A guide by the Gibbs-Lab (University of Wisconsin-Madison) shows a food recovery hierarchy, prioritising minimising waste in the first instance.  Following this, the best use for spent grain is human food products, and among other recipes, it can be an ingredient in bread making; it doesn’t get more circular than that!  Bread made from spent grain has a higher fibre and protein content and lower calories, so potentially healthier!  The next best option is to use it in animal feed; this is the most-widely purposeful outcome of spent grain and taken up by Toast.  Once food options have been exhausted, spent grains can be used industrially for energy production/chemical and biotechnological processes, or in compost/fertilizer.  Lots of opportunities then for reducing waste.

Waste as a raw material

What struck me about Toast Ale and bread waste, was the shift in thinking about unused bread being seen as a raw material with value rather than as waste and an inconvenience.  They are not the only business out there making good use of surplus food.  Flawsome is another example, this time taking the less-loved wonky fruits and surplus to reinvent them into wonderful drinks.

Repurposing and distributing surplus

Using bread waste in brewing is a great example of how a surplus is repurposed into something new and exciting.  Bread though is unfortunately not the only wasted food; in the UK potatoes are right at the top, but there are many others too. 

The organisation WRAP is helping to envision a landscape where resources are utilised more sustainably; they have set up a food and drink surplus network for manufacturers to trade their surplus or find partners to take surplus and redistribute it.  The B Corp Too Good To Go links waste food from cafes, restaurants, hotels, shops to manufacturers and consumers.  The charity, Fareshare, works similarly; it takes in surplus food, but this time redistributes it to other charities for incorporation into meals for vulnerable people.

On a smaller scale, surplus food can be shared by neighbours using the OLIO app.  So, if you find you have overbought, or go on holiday and want to empty your fridge, this offers a great solution.  It’s simple to use; you upload photos of what you have, give a location and time for pick-up – then wait for a response; brilliant!

Waste has value

I suggest a change of mindset is required, where waste needs to have value; the opportunities for a creative revolution are abundant.  Perhaps, we need to use the word waste less?  It is certainly making me re-evaluate things I once disregarded – progress, I guess. 

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