Purpose. The purpose of this paper is to appraise and evaluate empirical research on circular economy in food systems, consolidating the existing knowledge and identifying shortcomings in this emerging body of research. Design/methodology/approach. The authors conducted a systematic literature review of 136 studies from the electronic databases Scopus and Web of Science. The authors also developed a thematic analysis and summarized the results in a framework. Findings. The authors identified seven critical issues for the transition to circular food systems: consumer behavior, multistakeholder coordination, business models, digital technologies, barriers, transition processes and performance and measurement systems. Moreover, the authors provide an agenda for future research on these topics. Originality/value. While reviews on the circular economy are spreading rapidly, no reviews have comprehensively addressed the critical issues for the transition to circular food systems in the business, management, and organization domains. © Emerald Publishing Limited.