Who knew that overused fry oil represented such an untapped health and sustainability market opportunity? FreshFry CEO Jeremiah Chapman breaks it down.
We love hearing how restaurants and other foodservice operators continue to make impressive strides when it comes to reducing food waste — from redirecting leftover product to consumers and other operators or, worst case, turning unused product into fuel.
But some common, wasteful aspects of commercial food production seem to have largely flown under the radar, both in terms of press and potential solutions — for example, fry oil, which is reportedly a top-three food cost for restaurants; every year, restaurants and commercial fryers spend an estimated $80 billion on it. And aside from the financial expense, overused fry oil apparently carries some unique sustainability implications.
Enter Louisville-based startup FreshFry — which has developed an upcycled, biobased Pod that extends the life of commercial frying oil, cutting costs by 25 percent. But FreshFry aims to offer more than extended oil life.
“I want our customers to feel confident that they can make the claim that they just did something great,” CEO Jeremiah Chapman told Sustainable Brands™. “With all major global brands, it comes down to the supply chain and having this faith.”
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FreshFry Pods are the first and only biobased, self-contained oil-filtration product on the market. The Pods, made primarily from rice agricultural waste, are dropped into frying oil to remove contaminants — extending service life and maintaining oil quality. FreshFry currently serves thousands of restaurants and pilot projects in the US and Canada, Chapman says; he estimates FreshFry Pods have eliminated over 11 million pounds of oil waste.
Chapman says the idea for FreshFry came while he was studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Louisville: “I would convert old oil from restaurants to biodiesel and it was completely degraded when I got it. I remembered when I was a kid, my grandmother would use potatoes to clean cooking oil after frying fish and a light bulb went off. I furiously researched how to use plant scraps to clean oil for years, developed a product — then showed it to a chef and it failed miserably. But the chef explained to me why it failed and what really mattered to him — food quality and safe operations. In that kitchen, FreshFry was born. Chefs enabled FreshFry to transform plants into Pods that help keep food quality high and operations safe.”
Economics, science and frying oil
For a variety of reasons — including successive dry summers that have stunted yields, the rise of biodiesel competing for soybean oil, and the war in Ukraine — sky-high vegetable oil prices aren’t likely retreating soon. Yet, consumer demand for fries and other go-to comfort foods won’t cool off anytime soon; so, many commercial oil customers now face signups and waiting lists.
Fry-oil life can be extended through filtering, but with limited success. The average restaurant disposes of oil every three to five days; and by then, it’s torched (and diners can taste the difference). From there, waste oil is sold to animal feed suppliers or converted into fuel. But because vegetable oil has become so expensive, operators are keeping it longer than they should — and in addition to affecting flavor, it’s bad for human health.
Vegetable oil, a triglyceride, breaks down when exposed to high temperatures, oxygen, acids and water. The breakaway segments float around and bond to other material — forming a Frankenstein of molecular chains, creating unsavory flavors and odors. If enough breakaway chains bond together, they'll form a resin and burn, causing people-harming smoke and climate-harming emissions smoke. Filtering oil alone, Chapman said, won't prevent the polymerization that's so harmful to food quality and human health.
FreshFry Pods capture these rogue chains before they have a chance to bond. The Pods — filled with plant shells sourced from agricultural waste — are designed to be left in a fryer overnight to remove water, acid and metals; and prevent polymerization. FreshFry Pods can extend the service life of oil an additional two to three days; Chapman says squeezing two extra days of service life translates to savings of $1,000 per year, per fryer, factoring in the cost of the Pods.
“Not only are you getting an extension in days, but the quality of the oil is high throughout; and you're much less likely to keep it too long, to where you're serving food coming out of bad oil,” he said.
FreshFry reported even better results for fryers that operate at consistent temperatures and fry only select foods.
Eliminating climate impacts, as well as bad food
Though the young company doesn’t yet have an established ag-waste supply chain, it is actively building relationships with sustainable farms as it scales. The company is also investigating how to measure and pass on environmental value to customers so they can start chipping away at their scope 3 emissions, one FreshFry Pod at a time. FreshFry is watching closely what kind of science-based targets companies are adopting, and is setting its own baselines to get a head start.
FreshFry is in the midst of conducting a full lifecycle analysis in pilot projects. But Chapman says the company’s most important internal metric is redeployed waste: According to three separate material tests, each Pod upcycles almost three-quarters of a pound of agricultural scraps, containing 85 percent upcycled agricultural waste and sequestering about .1 pounds of carbon per pod. The remaining 15 percent is composed of virgin cellulose binders. The company aspires to eventually redeploy 10-15 pounds of upcycled agricultural waste per pod, and consist of 100 percent upcycled content.
As a plus, clean electricity is a byproduct of Pod production. Rice waste — a high-moisture, high-energy product — undergoes a controlled activation during production, which emits heat. This thermal energy is converted into electricity and sent back into the grid. The company says this is just the beginning.
As of December 2021, FreshFry has redeployed 10 million pounds of agricultural waste. Chapman sees FreshFry as a driver for scaled change; and he wants to create a new, global market for agricultural waste.
“Not only does it make sense for people’s profit, but the people who use it and the planet it comes from,” he said.
FreshFry is actively seeking pilot partnerships in the industrial food space.