A new study shows that healthier diets are associated with higher amounts of food waste.
Here's an nugget of information for you to chew on the next time you're scraping plates or cleaning out the fridge: The average person living in the United States wastes nearly a pound of food every day, which works out to around 30 percent of the average American's daily calories. Perhaps most curiously, it's the people who eat the healthiest that throw away the most food.
In a way, it's not surprising. A healthy diet contains more fruits and vegetables, which are prone to spoil faster than processed or pre-packaged foods. But it does suggest an unfortunate disconnect between what we choose to put into our bodies and our awareness of its effect on the environment, because every time we throw away food, we're also throwing away the resources that went into growing and making it.
This finding comes from an open-access study published last month in PLOS. Its authors wanted to investigate the relationship between consumer food waste, diet quality, nutrient waste, and embodied agricultural resources, something that hasn't really been done before. The authors compiled data from the 2015 Healthy Eating Index, the US Department of Agriculture's What We Eat in America database, and food waste data. The food waste amounts were self-reported by individuals and do not include restaurants. From the study:
"This analysis finds that US consumers wasted 422g of food per person daily, with 30 million acres of cropland used to produce this food every year. This accounts for 30 percent of daily calories available for consumption, one-quarter of daily food (by weight) available for consumption, and 7 percent of annual cropland acreage."
Twenty-two food groups were studied and, of these, fruits and vegetables represented by far the biggest portion of discarded food (39 percent). The next most discarded group was dairy (17 percent), followed by meat (13.5 percent) and grains (12 percent). Other foods such as oils and salad dressings, eggs, nuts, seeds, potatoes, and soup were under 3 percent each.
So, while American shoppers strive to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diet, they also need to figure out how to waste less. It's a conundrum that the study authors agree must become a priority. From the conclusion:
"Food waste is a critical component of environmental sustainability that, until now, has not been rigorously analyzed alongside diet quality. The current results suggest that simultaneous efforts to improve diet quality and reduce food waste may be critical. Practically, increasing consumers’ knowledge about how to prepare and store fruits and vegetables will be an essential component to reducing food waste."
Home cooks can benefit from reading up on ways to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into more dishes, using up produce that's reaching the end of its edible life, and preserving or freezing leftovers. There are lots of resources available here on TreeHugger (see links below this article). When I think of my own kitchen, there are a few suggestions that come to mind immediately:
- When fruits are starting to go bad, I start baking. Crisps and cobblers, muffins, and pies are all great uses for fruit that is overripe. Make applesauce with bruised apples; just cut out any rotten spots.
- Soup is a wonder food for using up veggies, beans, grains, and leftover canned tomatoes.
- Stock is like soup, except for vegetables that are even further gone.
- Spinach shrinks down to nothing; add it to anything you can, like dal or curry, soup, eggs, smoothies, hot pasta sauce.
- Use that freezer: As soon as you realize you won't be able to finish whatever you bought, put it in the freezer. Depending on what it is, you may have to blanch it first (green beans) or puree it (herbs, blended with olive oil and frozen in an ice cube tray), but the freezer is a true food-saver.