Eating "Ugly," a New Healthy Trend

March 4, 2015

Sweet potato in a "special" shape. CREDIT: Shutterstock

You might have seen that in the United States at least a third of all food ever produced is never eaten. What you may not know is that it's mostly not your fault. While there is plenty we can do in our homes to reduce food waste (see tips from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Sustainable America), the responsibility for the massive produce waste in the United States falls squarely on retailers. As much as 40 to 20 percent of all produce goes uneaten because it doesn't meet retailers' strict cosmetic standards (Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)). These fruits and vegetables are considered "ugly" or not "perfect" enough for sale, and are therefore destined for waste rather than human nourishment.

If you have ever seen fruit or veg that looked all twisted, spotted, and odd-shaped . . . you were probably at a farmers market, and you most likely turned around and went right for the produce that had absolutely zero imperfections: like those yellow bananas that were still together in the bunch, the bell peppers that had a perfect distribution of color, or the roundest oranges sitting in a basket. I also used to look for perfection, but what I've found out is that odd-looking produce should be what we seek and not what we avoid; because it's as delicious and as nutritious as the so-called perfect product that you find in large grocery stores.

Unfortunately, farmers markets, small corner stores, small grocers, and backyard gardens are really the only places in the United States where "ugly" produce is available. Why? Large retailers have long-standing policies and standards that prevent them from purchasing different-looking produce. At Feeding the 5000 Oakland, we gave away 11,000 pounds of ugly grocer-rejected fruit and veg: sweet potatoes and onions considered "too large," scratched squash, crooked carrots, and freckled apples were some of the produce in the mix.

There are reasons to be optimistic, though. Over the past five years, European citizens have increasingly demanded that old produce standards be relaxed. As a result, Europe is witnessing a boom in ugly fruit and veg sales. The movement started in the United Kingdom in 2012, where "uglies" are currently the fastest growing segment of the produce sector. In 2005, WRAP—an organization working for the sustainable use of available resources—partnered with the UK government and different grocers to launch "Courtauld Commitment," a "voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector." For instance, Sainsbury, the third largest chain of supermarkets in the United Kingdom, committed to reducing waste going out of its stores to 1 percent.

 In 2014, France followed suit. Intermarché, the third largest retailer in the country, took the entire world by storm with the launch of a campaign titled "Les Fruits & Legumes Moches" ("Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables"). It continued to increase social awareness about food waste and to encourage customers not to succumb to the temptation of buying "pretty." In its first month alone, the campaign reached over 21 million people and store traffic increased by 24 percent. After the remarkable success in France, grocers from seven different countries in Europe have also started selling "uglies."

"Inglorius fruit and veg." Intermarche from Patrice de Villiers on Vimeo.

 "Uglier," but also cheaper!

In addition to being necessary to avoid the depletion of natural resources, consuming "uglies" is also cheaper. According to surveys, 75 percent of shoppers would buy "ugly" if it were cheaper. British retailer (and subsidiary of Walmart) Asda did not think twice and decided to go prime time on "uglies." It recruited chef-author mega-star Jamie Oliver to be the spokesperson for Asda's "Beautiful on the Inside" ugly fruit and veg line that is being tested in five of its stores in the UK. Asda estimated that with this new strategy in place it will save 10 to 20 percent of suppliers' crops from going to waste.

Some argue that this strategy will reduce farmers' profit margin. The thinking behind this position is that the amount of total food sold is likely to stay the same, whereas the receipt for the groceries is likely to go down due to customers foreseeable shift to "uglies."

I don't believe either of these assumptions for a moment. First, the need to include much more fresh produce in our diet is pressing: as many as one in two people on this planet are malnourished. If only we could follow Michael Pollan's mantra, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," then we would all be much better off and perhaps wouldn't be facing such an obesity and malnourishment epidemic. Furthermore, the law of supply and demand makes me suspect that if we were able to sell ugly produce in stores for discounted prices ("uglies" are often 30 percent discounted in Europe), then more would be purchased and consumed, thereby improving health outcomes and farmers' and field workers' incomes as well.

No "uglies" for the United States

In the meantime, in U.S. grocery stores the rate of food waste is about 58 percent. Indeed, it is estimated that reducing just 15 percent of all food wasted in the United States would be enough to feed 25 million food insecure Americans (NRDC). While the low-hanging fruit sits right in front of us, policymakers keep insisting on finding ways to improve farming productivity. Millions of taxpayer dollars are invested every year in this pursuit.

If by 2050 we are to provide 70 percent more food to feed the 9 billion people expected to live on the planet, preventing avoidable food waste should be the number one goal, rather than producing more. In the United States, people love to root for the 2004 Boston Red Sox or less than perfect-looking actors with "character" like Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill. We can even turn a near useless rock into a Pet Rock. However, U.S. retailers are hesitant to make the leap to even try out nutritious and delicious, yet slightly different produce.

Instead of sitting and waiting for our lovable and tasty "uglies," you can take action. Shop at those smaller stores and farmers markets that already offer them, or go on www.UglyFruitAndVeg.org and demand ugly fruit and veg from your favorite large grocery stores. The movement is growing also on Twitter (follow @UglyFruitAndVeg), where people like Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and many more have supported the movement. Support Ugly Fruit and Veg, because all produce deserves to be loved and eaten, not wasted!


Related Articles

"Starve a Landfill. Efficiency in the Kitchen to Reduce Food Waste," The New York Times (March 3, 2015)