Those of us who shop seasonal farmer’s markets have learned that the bumpy apples, misshapen eggplants and two-pronged carrots fresh from the fields can taste better than their perfect peers on the grocery store shelves, but the vast majority of us still judge our food on looks alone, bypassing ugly produce in our quest for the best-looking fruits and vegetables.
That quest contributes significantly to the problem of food waste. Retailers, restaurants and households toss out somewhere between 20% and 40% of the world’s produce, according to a United Nations report. That translates to around 8% or 10% at U.S. grocery stores, said Supermarket Guru’s Phil Lempert.
Some of the waste happens because produce is perishable and can be made more so by inadequate chilling during travel or too much handling in the store, he said. But we can make a big dent in the amount of wasted fruits and vegetables if we learn not to care so much about looks.
Lempert points to efforts in Europe, where 2014 was declared the Year Against Food Waste.
Several months ago, France’s third-largest supermarket chain launched a campaign that put the homeliest of the fresh fruits and vegetables front and center. Intermarche’s Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables campaign starred misshapen apples, potatoes, eggplants and citrus fruit, offering consumers a way to pay 30% less and still get their recommended five a day.
This month, Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn introduced Misfits, boxes of misshapen seasonal produce it will sell online at lower prices.
Similar efforts would work in the U.S., said Lempert, who advocates a special section in the produce department for ugly seasonal produce at discounted prices. The section would include only in-season stuff, he said, along with recipes for making dishes with fruits and veggies that are at their peak of flavor. “When they can get things that are healthy and tasty, that makes it more exciting, like a treasure hunt when they come into the produce department,” he said.
Tailoring the assortment to fit the season is also likely to boost overall fruit and vegetable consumption, he said, because it just tastes better.
Looks don’t matter nearly as much as flavor to restaurant chefs when it comes to fruits and vegetables that will be processed into menu items, and often the ugly melons, misshapen potatoes and other produce that won’t sell at retail can be bought at lower prices, said Dawn Young, president of New Jersey-based supplier Tailor Cut Produce.
Appearance is one of several criteria used to judge produce, she said, since it can be an indicator of freshness. “For example, iceburg lettuce will have white cores when it is fresh and good quality. As it ages the cores brown up. The lettuce with brown cores has less shelf life left,” she said.
Chefs and restaurateurs typically strike a balance between quality and price, she said. “We have customers who always prioritize quality and often brand over price and we have customers who strictly shop price and we have most customers in the middle who are juggling price and quality and trying to purchase well.”
As more supermarkets add in-house chefs and make their prepared food offerings on site every day, retailers are also finding more uses for all grades of produce.
At Alfalfa’s Market in Boulder, Colo., there’s often not enough ugly produce, said Paul McLean, vice president of purchasing and marketing. That’s because veggies including onions, potatoes, carrots and peppers that look less than perfect cost 10% to 20% less. They’re perfect for use in the grocery store’s prepared foods, since they taste just fine, he said, and using them in foodservice saves the prettiest produce for the retail shelves.
“What I’m finding is there’s never enough supply,” he said. “We don’t get those products every week. I think it’s supply and demand, and I don’t know that there’s enough of it.
“I think the key thing is that there’s nothing wrong with this food and it needs to be utilized. We put a lot of energy and effort into growing it, and it’s important that we do have outlets for this food, so we don’t waste it.”
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