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…