Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital
Recent studies have indicated that damage to the environment has progressed further than previously believed, so numerous corporations across industries are making changes to reduce waste and increase sustainability in their production processes. The produce industry is contributing significantly to this international shift, promoting more sustainable shopping and eating habits among its consumers.
One of the most prevalent efforts to this end is the recent “ugly produce” movement. As it currently stands, approximately 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted annually in the US. Much of the wasted food is perfectly safe to eat, but doesn’t meet the US Department of Agriculture’s appearance standards due to irregular size, shape, or surface imperfections like spots or minor bruising. Several grocery providers across the US have implemented programs like Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, and Kroger’s Peculiar Picks that sell these items, which might otherwise go to waste.
Obviously, this movement is helpful in the global effort to limit wastage. It cleverly addresses the food waste issue and offers shoppers access to fresh, albeit slightly blemished, produce at discounted prices. However, the movement is the subject of controversy due to its perceived harm to food banks and independent farmers. Historically, grocery stores and suppliers would often donate some or all of their visually imperfect produce to food banks, who are obviously less choosy than the average consumer when it comes to the appearance of the food they receive. The arrival of the ugly produce movement concerned several experts, who speculated that consumers in search of a bargain would dip into supplies that were previously designated to food banks. Several food banks and other charities confirmed, however, that the quantity of wasted (but edible) food far outweighs the amount that food banks need to feed the underserved masses.
Another reason to embrace visually imperfect produce is that organic fruits and vegetables are treated with smaller amounts of less aggressive pesticides and are thus more likely to naturally vary in appearance. Recently, some experts have even asserted that visually imperfect fruits and vegetables may be tastier and healthier than their unblemished counterparts. Orchardist Eliza Greenman conducted an unofficial experiment on her pesticide-free apples, comparing those blemished from fighting off pests, excessive heat and fungus, with their unmarred equivalents. Remarkably, she found that the scarred apples had 2-5% higher sugar content. Likewise, another study found higher levels of antioxidant phenols and fruit acids in organic fruit when compared with those treated with more aggressive pesticides.
We’ve suspected the nutritional benefits of organic produce for some time. Although the spectrum of factors that contribute to antioxidant content isn’t fully understood, many of the antioxidants that naturally occur in fruits like apples develop in response to natural threats like pests and fungus. This means that attempts to artificially protect crops from these natural burdens makes our produce prettier, but potentially less flavorful and healthy.
In short, public embrace of “ugly” produce is good for the planet and apparently, good for our bodies.
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