Sustainability and nutrition are intricately linked, as the way in which we approach and consume food has direct impacts on both our personal wellbeing and the health of the environment. One action we can implement into our daily lives to promote a more sustainable food system is limiting total food waste. According to the National Resources Defense Council, up to 40% of food in the United States alone is never eaten. As we consider ways to combat this significant statistic, upcycling represents an innovative and effective solution for reducing food waste.

We had the pleasure of connecting with Ben Gray, Registered Dietitian and Chief Innovation Officer of the Upcycled Food Association (UFA), to learn more about UFA’s mission, his path to a career at the intersection of sustainability and nutrition and why knowledge of sustainable practices, such as upcycling, is critical for health professionals in their everyday practice as food and nutrition experts. 

Eat Well Connect’s November newsletter focuses on the unique intersection of culinary arts and sustainability. From your perspective, how are these two topics complementary, and how have they shown up in your own career path to date? 

The Upcycled Food industry brims with individuals and companies that see opportunity where others saw waste. Ingredients from the 70% of the cacao pod not traditionally used in chocolate production, the spent grain from brewing, or products like jerky from invasive fish; the possibilities for innovation are almost endless. The work I do supporting visionaries that comprise this industry is incredibly rewarding and sits at this very intersection of culinary arts and sustainability. 

The Upcycled Food Association (UFA) describes itself as “building a food system in which all food is elevated to its highest and best use.” Can you speak more to this idea and the types of work UFA is currently doing to meet this mission?

Our global food system currently wastes about 1 billion tons of food annually, translating to $1 trillion of investment into our food system lost each year. UFA supports a consumer-driven solution to what is considered by Project Drawdown as the most impactful thing we can do to combat climate change: preventing food waste. We’ve created a certification program that allows brands to highlight products that include upcycled ingredients directly on pack. The certification serves to educate consumers about ingredients that were once part of that $1 trillion loss. We’ve also developed a network of over 180 Member companies in 17+ countries, created programs to increase investment into the industry, and continue to help grow upcycled supply chains. 

As a Registered Dietitian, Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the Upcycled Food Association, you’ve followed a unique and exciting career path within the field of nutrition and dietetics. Can you share more on your background in nutrition and the path that led to your current role at UFA?

It’s always been about my love of food, evangelizing variety, and helping promote positive change. After culinary school I pivoted to studying nutrition because I was interested in “helping people.” As a nutrition educator on university campuses I lived for the sparkle in a student’s eyes when they tried their first fresh peach in early August or high-fived their partner while enjoying a roasted pepper they helped grow in the campus community garden. When we started work on what would become the UFA, I dived into the uncertain territory of a startup because it was an opportunity to help bring positive change to our global food system and every day we take steps to bring about that positive change. 

For those who might not be familiar, what is “upcycled food”? And why is it important for health professionals to both understand and apply knowledge of this practice in their own work? 

Upcycling food is an ancient tradition based on the philosophy of using all of what you have. Upcycled products prevent food waste by creating new, high-quality products out of surplus food. In 2020 I facilitated a group of experts from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Drexel University, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, ReFED, and others to help us create the official definition for use in policy, research, and more: “Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”

Dietitians must be able to address all areas of health including physical, mental, and environmental, helping clients achieve more than the absence of sickness. Understanding that upcycled ingredients must meet the same standards for food safety is just the start. Knowledge of sustainability paradigms is critical to maintaining our credibility with the public as food and nutrition experts.

Who do you look to for inspiration in both the sustainability and culinary realms?

Jacques Pepin is a master of simplifying technique and a wonderfully unassuming steward for anyone looking to cook more. I adapted many of the recipes from his show “Fast Food My Way” for cooking classes I taught on campus. I’m also entranced by the endless creativity within the cuisines of South Asia. Take dosa or idli with sambar and coconut chutney; a popular breakfast dish with flavor combinations I enjoy even after eating it hundreds of times that represents the rule rather than the exception when it comes to depth and variety of flavors and textures. Finally, UFA Members and the products they’re bringing to market are a continued source of inspiration for me.  

What are some favorite resources you can share with the Eat Well Connect community to learn more about upcycled food, as well as other aspects of food sustainability that can be applied in their own practice? 

I encourage everyone to check out our website where you can find out about the upcycled food industry, our certification, and links to learn about creative upcycled ingredients and products and the companies behind them. If people want to learn more about food waste, ReFED recently released their insights engine ( which is a “data and solutions hub for food loss and waste, designed to provide anyone interested in food waste reduction with the information and insights they need to take meaningful action to address the problem.” Finally, I often recommend “Cooking with Scraps” by Lindsay-Jean Hard to those interested in using more of what they already have in the kitchen, 

Lastly, what’s next for the Upcycled Food Association in 2022?

More and more people will be seeing products on the shelves that have the “Certified Upcycled” Mark! As an organization that was just gaining momentum as the pandemic started, we’re also looking forward to getting out and meeting people face to face at trade shows including Expo West and, hopefully, hosting our own in-person events.

Ben Gray MS, RD, is the Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the Upcycled Food Association. Ben came to this work with a deep affection for food and is driven daily by the bold vision of a food system that can sustain all peoples and our planet. He holds an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University, and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Arizona and University of Georgia respectively. He is honored to support innovative brands and extraordinary people behind them and proud to help grow an organization that sees equitable participation and being evidence-based as central to the mission of reducing food waste.