Food waste is getting out of hand as consumers reject items with minor imperfections. Discover what’s behind our food choices and how we can improve our decision making.
Being born on a farm gave me a different perspective on a lot of topics. Naturally, a lot of that perspective had to do with how we produce food.
I knew a lot about that, even before I went to school. I can remember climbing ladders and picking apples from the trees planted on our family’s original homestead in the 1850s. That’s the kind of thing my mind associates with food.
I can remember one of my elementary school teachers, who grew up in the city, coming to me with questions about agriculture. He had to teach a unit on the topic, and I was surprised that the teacher didn’t know many “common sense” things.
Today, Only Two Percent Of Us Live On Farms
At the beginning of the 20th Century, roughly half of us lived on farms. Today, it’s only about 2%.
That’s not a problem in itself, but it does mean that most people no longer know much about where their food comes from. They realize, in theory, that it comes from farms. Still, for them, in practice, it comes from the supermarket or the cafeteria.
One problem that worldview leads to is food waste. Thinking of food as a retail product leads people to expect it to be as shiny and uniform as a brand new smartphone.
Food Comes From The Land, So It Can’t Be Flawless
Food comes from the land, so it can’t be flawless without an awful lot of processing. That expectation is causing a tremendous volume of food to go to waste for cosmetic reasons that have nothing to do with taste, nutrition or safety.
Karin Wendin is an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science. She was part of a research team that looked into how food appearance affects our shopping habits.
She explained, “We choose food based upon an expectation of what it will taste like that is bound to our feelings. So, if we expect a brown banana to not match the taste of a yellow one, we opt for the latter.”
All Of That Leftover Food Goes To Waste
Of course, all of those odd-looking bananas or other food items get picked over and left behind. All that leftover food goes to waste.
In Professor Wendin’s home country of Denmark, 716,000 tons of food, mainly produce, are tossed out. This is delicious food being disposed of for reasons that have nothing to do with quality.
“Bruised or oddly shaped fruit can easily be used. They usually taste just as good as nicely looking specimens. And in cases when an apple is bruised or a bit floury in texture, one can still use it for juice or pie.”
Purchasing Decisions Are Based On Emotion
When people don’t know about a topic, they don’t make decisions about it rationally. Often, we don’t use logic or knowledge to make purchasing decisions; we base them on emotion.
“When an ‘ugly’ piece of fruit gets tossed, it becomes food waste, which is a big problem— including financially,” Professor Wendin explains. “This is why we need to work on reevaluating our feelings about brown and oddly-shaped fruit.”
The researchers worked with a group of 130 study participants in Sweden. They showed the participants photographs of apples with various flaws and asked them to rate whether they would like to eat them.
Participants Rated Photographs Of Apples
As expected, they rated conventional-looking apples as preferable to odd-looking ones. However, that was only part of the exercise.
Then, they asked each subject to taste a superior, fresh Grade A apple. Having been exposed to images of various “ugly” apples, they reported that the flawless looking apple tasted terrible.
The old saying that “first impressions are lasting impressions” turns out to be accurate, at least in terms of food. If we get a terrible impression of a food item, we get turned off by it.
A Bad Impression Of A Food Item Turns Us Off
Professor Wendlin explained the results like this, “When participants saw a photo of an ugly apple, and then tasted one that was green and perfect, they stuck by their belief that it tasted awful. This speaks to the extent to which our emotions and psychology factor in with taste sensations.”
It gets worse. As it turns out, it’s only our unpleasant emotions that stick with us from first impressions. “We remember negative feelings and expectations more than positive ones,” she added.
How can society tackle this problem and stop all of this valuable food from going to waste? Professor Wendlin believes that we have to overcome these emotional biases with better communication.
“People Don’t Know Where To Seek Advice”
“As things stand, communication about our foods—and what is good or bad—does not work optimally. People don’t know where to seek advice and guidance,” she argues. “Did you know, for example, that imperfect fruit is often cheaper than its more perfect neighbours, even though both products probably taste the same?”
The next step for the researchers is to develop the best communication strategy to get this message across. For example, supermarkets could make a more significant issue out of food waste and provide incentives for consumers to accept imperfect food items.
Also, people don’t refer to government publications on food issues. They may need to be revamped to fill the knowledge gap around food production and waste.
Professor Wenlin wrapped up her thoughts by saying, “Or, should we instead communicate on social media, where people are and spend time on lifestyle issues? It would be interesting to dive into.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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