Pity the Ugly Carrot— It Could Reduce Our Food Waste

Illustration by Anne Freier.

Whenever I find a double carrot inside a pack of otherwise perfectly cylindroconical-shaped carrots, I smile. Nature has a way of keeping me entertained through simple shape-shifting. But I have to visit the local farmer’s markets if I want a surprise on my dinner plate. Sadly, most retailers don’t appreciate a wonky vegetable.

Supermarket demand for cosmetic perfection results in 40% of crops such as potatoes, apples, and onions being tossed in the bin. In the UK, 25% of carrots were rejected because of cosmetic imperfections. That equates to 1,750 tonnes per year — nine times the weight of a blue whale. Gala apples have to be red, tomatoes need to be round and don’t dare serve a banana with age spots. To offset the produce lost because of appearance, farmers tend to grow more. They grow to waste.

Although retailers have begun to acknowledge the issue — for example, U.K. supermarket chain Morrisons sells a wonky vegetable box — the percentage of fruit and vegetables wasted at production, retail, and household level remains huge. Food just doesn’t mean that much to us.

This has given researchers at the University of Houston an idea: what if we humanized misshaped foods? If we could feel sorry for the wrinkled apple, we may be more inclined to eat it. “We suggest that when old produce is humanized, it is evaluated more favorably since it leads consumers to evaluate the old produce with a more compassionate lens,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

The team examined consumer attitudes to bananas and cucumbers that had been anthropomorphized. When they showed participants images of old bananas in sun chairs or cucumber slices shaped into a human face, they found that attitudes to aged produce had changed. “With fresh produce, aging promotes visible changes, much as it does in humans,” says Vanessa Patrick, Professor of Marketing at the University of Houston. “That can create a connection with human qualities of aging when the food is anthropomorphized.”

It’s an interesting approach that could change what consumers put into their baskets and onto their plates. For supermarkets, the findings could translate to something as simple as adding a sign reminding customers that wonky vegetables deserve a chance to be eaten. “Making food that would otherwise go to waste more appealing to consumers may allow store managers to avoid having to reduce the price for that older produce, which would improve the bottom line,” Patrick adds.

But supermarkets and farmers aren’t the only ones to blame for our high food waste. American households throw out half of the fresh foods they purchase because of dubious date labels. Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University, has been examining this trend. Of the meat survey participants stored in their fridge, they consumed less than half (44%). Fruit (40%)and dairy (42%) have fallen victim to similarly low consumption rates.

“People eat a lot less of their refrigerated food than they expect to, and they’re likely throwing out perfectly good food because they misunderstand labels,” Roe explains. The problem is that many consumers don’t understand what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels really mean. “People think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” Roe adds.

An estimated 1.3 billion edible food products are wasted globally each year; 43% are wasted at home. Roe noted that people who cleaned out their fridges regularly were more likely to waste food, whilst those checking date labels frequently threw away less food. There’s also a bit of an age gap, with younger consumers binning more food than older shoppers.

For Megan Davenport who led the study, “strategies to reduce food waste in the U.S. should include limiting and standardizing the number of phrases used on date labels, and education campaigns to help consumers better understand the physical signs of food safety and quality.” Altering our understanding of food labeling is important, but it’s difficult to get people to change the habits they grew up with it.

Across the pond, scientists at Imperial College London are working on a novel solution to address that challenge. They’ve recently presented ‘paper-based electrical gas’ sensors which let consumers monitor spoiled food products using their smartphones. The sensors detect gases that are indicative of spoilage such as ammonia. The scientists hope that the biodegradable, non-toxic sensors will eventually be added to food packaging. Shoppers will then be able to scan a package using their phones to get a reliable estimate of how edible a food product is.

“Although they’re designed to keep us safe, use-by dates can lead to edible food being thrown away,” says Dr. Firat Güder from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial. “In fact, use-by dates are not completely reliable in terms of safety as people often get sick from foodborne diseases due to poor storage, even when an item is within its use-by.” At a manufacturing cost of $0.02 each, the sensors sound like a commercially viable alternative to use-by dates and sniff tests. For Güder, the innovation addresses the need “to reduce unnecessary food waste and the resulting plastic pollution.”

The idea itself isn’t new. Commercial food sensors have been around for a few years, but most are expensive to make or difficult to interpret. Color sensors that include pH-sensitive dyes, for example, have been shown to leach over time, which results in inaccurate readings of freshness.

The sensors developed by Imperial have several other advantages. They work at 100% humidity and at room temperature, and they are activated only by gases that indicate spoiled food. Güder has high hopes for the invention: “We believe our very simple technique could easily be scaled up […] by using existing high-volume printing methods such as screen printing and roll-to-roll printing.”

But until the sensors hit the market, have a heart and give the wonky carrot a chance.

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