Why Do We Buy Food We Never Use?

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One poll revealed kitchen cabinets peppered with canned quail eggs, pizza–flavored salad dressing, canned whale meat, and grass jelly. Why?!

Upon reading an earlier study called "The Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use," I checked my cabinet to see if there was anything I had left orphaned in the dark recesses. I am an adventurous cook and hard to intimidate when it comes to strange ingredients; I was pretty sure everything would be accounted for. But, uhm. Well. Yeah. Let’s see ... an unopened bottle of Jim Beam Steak Sauce (I don’t eat steak), two jars of the Mexican condiment called Dona Maria Pipian (its combination of pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts and chile sounds pretty good, too bad they both expired in 2009), and a rather charming jar of Mrs. Miller’s Homemade Corn Cob Jelly. Yes, corn cob jelly. Needless to say, I’m not coming at this story from a position of haughtiness.

We likely all have curious cans and jars lurking in our pantries – and we’re quick to place the blame on seductive advertising and/or bulk buying. But in an age when Americans are wasting 40 percent of their food it seems prudent to take a closer look.

In the study mentioned above, conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the researchers provided open–ended questionnaires to 450 consumers. The results were published in the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. Said consumers confessed to a treasure-trove of oddities – think canned quail eggs, pizza–flavored salad dressing, canned whale meat, and grass jelly. Grass jelly!

So what’s the deal? As it turns out, much of it was bought for specific reasons beyond slick marketing. The study found that “more than 63 percent of unused products were actually bought for specific recipes that were never made or specific occasions that never occurred. When people buy products for specific recipes or specific occasions, they tend to be overly optimistic.”

We have our optimism to blame! People think they will, I don’t know, finally perfect that quail egg soufflé? Indeed, the researchers said that many items were bought in seeking to, “achieve the perfect recipe.” Another factor, overestimating party attendees while shopping or running out of time to make a dish, “leaving the occasion–specific product unused, unwanted and sitting in the backs of their cupboards.”

Consider them souvenirs of unfulfilled plans.

"The consumers had visualized a use for the product that quite simply never materialized," said Dr. Brian Wansink, lead author and Director of the Food and Brand Lab.

Wansink says that we can aim to curb this behavior by trying to make sure that the things we buy are not forgotten:

• Rotate products from the back of the shelf to the front during cleaning.
• Plan new uses for abandoned products.
• Dispose of expired products.
• Donate non–expired, abandoned products to the local food bank instead of throwing the product away.

And with that in mind, I’m going to make a peanut butter and corn cob jelly sandwich for lunch.

Do you have any unloved oddballs in your cupboard? Take a look and report in the comments.