Have you ever wondered why fruits or vegetables in your local grocery store are always so picture-perfect? It’s because only the perfect ones are granted entry into the store.
So what is ugly produce? It is fruits or vegetables that farmers are unable to sell because of their misshaped form or unappealing color. At times, they even have blemishes or scars.
Some reasons for rejecting such produce are decreased shelf life due to scratches or punctures. Other causes include that their shapes would make it tedious to prepare compared to regular fruits or vegetables, according to The Daily Meal.
Another reason for these unattractive products to be rejected is psychological reasons. The American Marketing Association tells us that buying unsightly groceries affects consumers' views of themselves, making their self-perceptions decline.
Compared to the more attractive options, consumers feel that buying the lesser versions isn’t worth it.
Furthermore, they have been conditioned to buy pretty and aesthetic produce. Kylie Knott in The Lifestyle says that years of following standards set by grocery stores have caused customers to refer to them subconsciously. Hence, when encountering bad foods, they are vetoed.
But why do these fruits and vegetables look different from the norm?
A major reason behind it is due to environmental causes. Ugly Food is Beautiful tells us that too much fertilizer or too little can cause differences in shapes.
For example, for carrots, if the tip is damaged by growing and hitting a rock in the soil, it can split and create multiple roots. Carrots can also develop into ugly produce because the immature carrot roots grow in separate directions, which are carved because of irregular pockets of manured soil.
Blemishes on fruits can be caused due to poor weather. The exterior of fruits can be damaged. For instance, apples can become imperfect produce when they are exposed to weather extremes such as hail storms, high winds, or a constant stream of hot sunny days.
Fruits and vegetables can also be tarnished at the grocery store due to too much handling. As stores usually display produce in abundance, it creates bruises and blemishes. Moreover, as shoppers, we tend to touch and smell to ensure the freshness of the product before we buy it.
As we poke and pinch it, this leaves blemishes, bruises, and soft spots. Sometimes, the product is not bought after the physical test, leaving it for the next customer to evaluate. Therefore, the crop becomes uglier, making it harder to purchase.
However, rejecting these unpleasing fruits and vegetables creates a problem, leading to more food waste.
In an article by Alisha Simon, “About 40% of the harvested fruits and vegetables get rejected because of the outrageously set cosmetic standards by the supermarkets in which they are sold (according to figures obtained from the UN FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation)).”
Consumer Reports states that more than 38 million people in the United States live in “food-insecure households.” ⅓ of our food supply goes into food waste. Most of the waste happens in homes or restaurants. But 10.1 million tons of food is also thrown out at farms.
Imagine this: that ⅓ of the world’s produce that is thrown away yearly could help feed about 800 million hungry people around the world, more than twice over. Isn’t that a startling image?
But why are these fruits and vegetables not being included in grocery stores in the first place?
In addition to standards set by the USDA, retailers add a supplementary level of criteria for their products. One example is sweet peppers which the USDA assigned three grades. This is all based on size and shape. Another part of the criteria is that they must be free from insects, injuries from hail, decay, sunburn, and more.
But what some retailers may add to their criteria is whether they have four lobes so it can stand unaided on a kitchen table.
These additional standards are what help them set themselves apart from their rivals.
While these aesthetic standards may seem trivial, they contribute significantly to a more serious issue- food waste.
Food loss is when food is eliminated during the production, processing, storage, and distribution stages. On the other hand, food waste is when food is eliminated during the retail and consumer stages.
Not only does this rejection of “ugly produce” lead to food waste, but it also has severe environmental consequences. The Daily Meal tells us that food production is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. As reported by the UN, “uneaten food consumes a volume of water equivalent to the yearly flow of the Volga River and adds roughly 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.”
Many companies have been created to tackle these issues.
Places like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods buy this cosmetically challenged produce and sell them to consumers at a lower price.
Supermarkets like Sprouts Farmer Market have announced that they will launch Rescued Organic at their California locations.
As a global problem, places like Singapore and Hong Kong have also taken action to reduce food waste. Lifestyle states that Hong King’s and Botanic Farm host public workshops and cooking demonstrations at a farmer’s market every week.
But there has been controversy regarding the establishment of these companies. According to The Daily Meal, these companies take away food from struggling adults and families. Non-profit food banks relied on farmers to donate their imperfect foods.
But with incentives from ugly food companies, there has been less motivation for farmers to donate their unattractive foods.
Misinformation is also being spread that farmers throw away the unsellable produce when in reality, they use it as animal feed or compost.
But there has been an increase in awareness of non-aesthetic produce and food waste. As shown in Consumer Reports, Supermarkets like Whole Foods utilize these products in prepared food and smoothie stations.
There has been an increase in social media that shows how to use imperfect fruits and vegetables in recipes like the @UglyProduceisBeautiful Instagram. Websites like The Crafty Baking show how to use and store the produce at home. There are also recipes with tips to cook and bake with unattractive produce.
The steps in reducing food loss and waste are a long one, but new ways and methods are popping up. Hopefully, the current attitude towards ugly produce will dissipate and will soon be accepted as their pretty counterpart.
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