FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA, US — Upcycling brewers’ spent grains adds protein and fiber to food and beverage products. The practice has a sustainability benefit, too, in that it reduces food waste. Yet cost remains an issue.

“Having it make financial sense has been where the struggle is,” said Sue Marshall, founder and chief executive officer of NetZro. “If you ever want to get safe, upcycled grain into cereal, it has to be at a certain price per pound.”

During a March 8 webinar put on by the Fargo-based Northern Crops Institute, she explained how Minneapolis, Minnesota, US-based NetZro reduces, recovers and re-harvests food that otherwise would be wasted. Upcycled ingredients prevent food waste by creating products out of surplus food and byproducts, according to NetZro.

' ... my goal was to make it so someday these upcycled grains can go into for example a Cheerio.' - Sue Marshall, NetZro CEO

“So now we’re at a point where we know anybody using this can make a nice margin on upcycling that grain and putting it back into the food supply chain,” Marshall said. “Of course, that depends on what it is going into, but my goal was to make it so someday these upcycled grains can go into, for example, a Cheerio.”

Over 20 billion pounds of grain byproduct from breweries and distilleries in the United States are wasted every year, she said. The brewers’ spent grains end up in landfills or are used as animal feed. The breweries mostly use the sugar in grains, which means protein and fiber are left in brewers’ spent grains, she said.

Recovering the spent grains must be done quickly because after breweries are through with the grains, they degrade and rot quickly.

“You literally have a few hours, not days,” Marshall said. “This stuff starts to smell.”

NetZro licenses equipment to help speed up the process. The equipment makes more financial sense in big breweries, which may go through 30,000 pounds of spent grains each week.

Licensing the equipment may not make a return on investment when working with small craft breweries that go through 6,000 to 7,000 spent grains a week. NetZro uses a hub-and-spoke model to service small craft breweries in the St. Paul, Minnesota, US, area and in Detroit, Michigan, US, and then the local food supply system. Craft brewers tend to use high-end grains for their specialty beers. The grains could work well in value-added foods and beverages, but the volume would not be enough to supply large multinational corporations, Marshall said.