Illustration by Hawnuh Lee.
Most of us are familiar with the nutritional benefits and endless flavor potential of the humble block of tofu. But did you know that after processing soybeans to make it, you’re left with a wonder ingredient with just as much to offer? This tofu byproduct is called okara, and in Japan it’s considered a superfood. In the U.S., however, tons and tons of perfectly usable okara go straight from the tofu factory to the trash every day.
Enter Renewal Mill—an upcycled flour and baking mix company that’s turning would-be wasted okara into delicious and good-for-you treats. Talk about closing the loop! I spoke to Caroline Cotto, one of Renewal Mill’s founders, about upending food waste with upcycled ingredients, contending with venture capital culture, and why you should never call her the ‘trash cookie lady.’
Can you start by telling me a bit about who you are and how you got interested in food?
I like to joke that I was always destined to work in food. I grew up on Cape Cod and my parents had an ice cream store named after me, so I was really engaged in the food scene early on. I’m from the town of Sandwich, MA, and my last name means cooked in Italian. I’ve always loved to cook, and I spent a lot of time in college focused on the nutrition side of food. I interned for Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ initiative, focused on childhood obesity and food access issues in Washington D.C.
I spent some time in Asia working on rice fortification with the U.N., and when I came back to the U.S. I thought I wanted to continue in academia. I quickly learned that was not actually what I wanted to do, so I pivoted into tech and ended up running the women’s diversity program at a large company. Working there for a few years confirmed that food really is my first passion, so I transitioned to a job at a food tech accelerator working on their ‘farm to fork’ program, and that’s where I met my co-founder Claire.
Claire had previously founded Boston’s first organic juice company, and was appalled by the amount of juice pulp going to the trash every day in that process. She happened to have a meeting with the owner of Hodo foods, which is the third-largest tofu company in the country, and he was like, ‘You think you make a lot of pulp waste in your tiny juicing business? I’m making 50 tons a week in my tofu plant.’ That’s how the idea for Renewal Mill got started.
Wow! So that’s what okara is?
Yes—okara is the pulp byproduct of tofu. Making tofu involves boiling and blending soybeans, then siphoning off the liquid and curdling it. You’re left with pulp, the same way that you would have pulp from juicing a carrot.
In Japan, okara would never be thrown out. ‘O-’ is an honorific and ‘kara’ means husk, so okara means ‘honoring the husk’ or ‘honoring the whole bean.’ Traditionally it’s used in its wet form, which has an oatmeal-like consistency, to make okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), pound cake, soup, and lots of other things. It’s a super nutritious product full of fiber and protein, and it’s arbitrarily being labeled as waste here in the U.S.—either being added to animal feed or taken directly to the landfill.
In Japan, okara would never be thrown out. ‘O-’ is an honorific and ‘kara’ means husk, so okara means ‘honoring the husk’ or ‘honoring the whole bean.’
When we started playing around with okara, we encountered two problems with using it in its wet form. One is that wet okara is about 80% water so it’s extremely heavy to transport, and the other is that it starts spoiling very quickly. So we worked with the USDA and came up with a process that eliminates both of those issues. We ‘co-locate’ our technology inside of the manufacturing plants of the partners that we work with, so we’re able to capture and process the byproducts onsite before they ever leave the factory floor. And by dehydrating it, we’re able to make it shelf stable. We turn okara into a high fiber gluten-free flour and sell it as an ingredient, and we also use it to make baking mixes and ready-to-eat vegan cookies.
Is it hard to explain what you’re selling to your customers?
I would say 99% of people who come across our product for the first time think it says okra flour. There’s a lot of education that goes into explaining what okara is specifically, and that’s why we never set out to be a straight retail business. One of the benefits of selling ingredients to other food companies is that we’re not not reliant on consumers fully understanding what okara is. We try to show the versatility of okara across products, and educate the research and development folks on using this ingredient. We also talk to the marketing folks about how to communicate upcycling to consumers.
For our retail customers, we emphasize that okara isn’t just a sustainable product, it’s also a product that tastes delicious. And from there, we lean into the larger story of how their purchase is helping to fight food waste, which is one of the largest drivers of climate change.
Are you looking to expand into other upcycled ingredients?
Ultimately we do see ourselves having a large portfolio of upcycled ingredients at Renewal Mill. We are really trying to be the go-to upcycled ingredient supplier for food companies. Our next product will be an upcycled oat flour made from the oat pulp leftover when you make oat milk.
We also saw the need to educate consumers about upcycled ingredients—that it’s food that’s perfectly clean and healthy, and should be eaten.
There are folks working to upcycle all types of ingredients—spent grain from beer brewing, fruit and vegetable pulp from large scale juicers… We banded together to form the Upcycled Food Association last fall because we all have this mission of reducing food waste and we know that no company can do it alone.
We also saw the need to educate consumers about upcycled ingredients—that it’s food that’s perfectly clean and healthy, and should be eaten. Early on when I was presenting about Renewal Mill, the person introducing me was like, ‘This is Caroline, the trash cookie lady!’ And we were like ‘Nope, that’s not what we do.’
UFA is working on a product certification program that would allow products to be certified upcycled the way that they are certified organic or non-GMO. We convened a working group of experts to make sure the certification is scientifically backed and won’t become just another form of greenwashing. It’s about auditing the supply chain and making sure that the material being used would have otherwise gone to a food waste destination, and that it’s instead being kept in the human food supply chain.
What are some of the great parts of running a small food business?
I love the autonomy and the daily problem solving I do with my team. I’ve worked at big tech companies where you have to stay in your lane, but with Renewal I get to touch every part of the business, and every day is super different and dynamic.
There is also so much support and innovation happening in this space. Meeting fellow founders and learning about their products and how we can support them is one of my favorite parts. We really lean on other founders and food forums for support, resources, and partnerships. It has been crucial to our growth.
It’s about auditing the supply chain and making sure that the material being used would have otherwise gone to a food waste destination, and that it’s instead being kept in the human food supply chain.
We just launched a co-branded grain-free tortilla with Tia Lupita—a better-for-you Mexican foods brand. Their founder Hector came to us and said he wanted to make the most sustainable tortilla. He’s featuring okara in his new grain-free tortilla, which is super exciting. We’re also about to launch a co-branded cookie with Fancy Pants Baking Co, which is a huge supplier of cookies for stores like Whole Foods.
Any not-so-great things about it?
Fundraising as a women-run business is very challenging. I’ve been on hundreds of investor calls by this point where people just don’t really listen to us or seem to only want to hear themselves talk—a lot of older white men that don’t take us seriously. Someone on a call recently flat out asked me, ‘When did you graduate from college?’ and I had to be like ‘That’s really not relevant to what we’re talking about here.’ We’ve definitely experienced misogyny and ageism in the process.
I think it’s mostly that investors aren’t willing to take as much risk on you as a woman. This is Claire’s third company, but Renewal somehow still is not held in the same regard as comparable companies founded by men. Male founders can push investors more and that’s accepted, whereas when we push back at all it’s not usually well received.
There is a lot of momentum building in the upcycling space. Over the last few years we’ve seen more understanding of what it is. So hopefully there will be more investment in the space, but to date, no upcycled company has had a big exit. We’re launching an equity crowdfunding campaign soon to make it so that anyone can invest in Renewal Mill and we’re not beholden to this traditional model of CPG investors.
What can you share with readers who want to get into the world of upcycled food?
There are infinite ways to upcycle in your own kitchen. If you make your own plant milk there are so many creative ways to use the pulp. Often upcycled ingredients can be a pretty easy one for one swap for things you can buy conventionally.
And for folks that are in the food space, we’re always looking to partner by finding ways to use byproducts or incorporating upcycled ingredients into formulations. Get in touch!
Thank you so much for chatting with us, Caroline! We can’t wait to see Renewal Mill ingredients in every aisle of the grocery store.
Head to renewalmill.com to up your upcycled baking game and try their products for yourself. You can also become an investor in Renewal Mill starting at $50 to help them build the new circular economy of food.