As peas and soy, crickets and fungus are increasingly eyed as sustainable protein sources, a group of entrepreneurs is looking a little lower on the food chain — at piles of waste. Sunflower tailings are among the scraps being “upcycled” into protein-rich food requiring less energy than meat to make.

Planetarians, a California startup, says it has developed a flour that has three times the protein and twice the fiber of wheat flour using a byproduct of sunflower oil manufacturing called “sunflower cake” or “sunflower meal.”

The flour makes bread and pasta that are better sources of protein than meat, CEO Aleh Manchuliantsau said at a food industry conference this year. It also is cheaper, enabling the manufacturing of 2,000 calories worth of food, the daily U.S. government recommendation, for under $1. Many studies have pointed to the high cost of meat-based protein compared with non-meat. 

The secret of the company’s success lies in the defatted seeds found in sunflower meals, and Planetarians has attracted the notice of both sunflower farmers eager to make more money than they get from the animal feed market where most sunflower meal winds up.  The food industry also is taking note as consumers become increasingly aware of the issue of food waste.

Italian food giant Barilla’s venture fund Blu1877 participated in Planetarians’ $750,000 seed funding that closed earlier this year.  The company has been testing Planetarians’ flour in cookies, pasta, and biscuits. According to Food Dive, Oreo maker Mondelez and General Foods are also testing Planetarians’ flour.

“I know that others have looked at doing things with sunflower meal, but I don’t believe they have had the success this company has had in developing a good, palatable-type product,”  John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, told Karma.

The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that there were 334.8 metric tons of the byproduct in the world as of 2017, enough to feed 1.5 billion people in a “healthy way” without growing any new crops, according to the company. 

While the upcyclers market isn’t crowded yet, entrants are arriving with new products.

Renewal Mill is selling high-protein flour using Okara, the pulpy byproduct created during the soy milk manufacturing process that otherwise would wind up as animal feed. Another startup called Coffee Cherry is selling coffee flour derived from the “cherries,” or flowers, found on the coffee plants that otherwise would be thrown out. ReGrained is transforming grain byproducts from the beer-brewing process into flour. 

“What we know for sure is that there is a ton of movement and a huge opportunity for growth and this can and should be viewed as both a problem and an opportunity,” Renske Lynde, the CEO of FS6, a business accelerator and investor in Renewal Hill, wrote in an email. 

Upcycler food companies are also finding success selling directly to consumers.

Planetarians offer a line of snack chips on Amazon which has sold out.  ReGrained sells granola bars. Barnana repurposes organic bananas that were rejected for export into “chewy banana bites.” Scraps Pizza sells a line of frozen pies made from produce farmers would have otherwise found difficult to sell.

Making more food waste useable would provide huge social benefits. According to the non-profit ReFed, food waste consumes 21% of all freshwater, which makes the case for upcycling food even stronger. ReFed also said $218 billion a year is spent on food that is bought and not eaten, about 1.3% percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. 

Venture capital and private equity firms invested more than $125 million in food waste during the first ten months of 2018, ReFed said. Backers included Andreessen Horowitz, S2G Ventures, Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, and DBL Partners. ReFed’s “Innovator Database” lists about 500 “Innovators,” half of which have been founded since 2012. 

The non-profit noted in a report issued last year that the first “unicorn” food waste company may emerge in the next few years.

Even so, the road ahead has plenty of challenges.

“Those working in waste-to-value solutions, for example, need to develop sourcing relationships from scratch, since there has not traditionally been a marketplace for after-market goods,” Lynde writes. “And they need to be willing to work outside of their lanes with many different stakeholders – including customers, retailers, philanthropy, and municipalities.”

The boon in food waste comes at a challenging time for consumer packaged goods. Companies such as Kraft Heinz, Mondalez and Campbell Soup have struggled for years to adapt to consumer demands for healthier, more authentic products, especially from millennials. 

Upcycled products appeal to younger consumers interested in brands that stand for the values they share, according to Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University. 

“What our research shows that with a little bit of education — and I am not talking about a webinar, I am talking about a sentence on a package or a few keywords on a package — consumers value upcycled products and may potentially pay more for an upcycled product,” he told Karma. 

ReFed estimates that $18 billion in funding is needed to reduce food waste by 20% over ten years, which would yield $100 billion in societal and economic value.

Upcycling food won’t be a novelty for much longer. According to Future Marketing Insights, the value of food wasted in 2019 is expected to be $46.7 billion and will grow at 5% during the next five years.