Short Feature

Ugly Delicious

Despite the rampant problem of hunger around the world, millions of pounds of food continue to go to waste, often due to their physical appearance. But why should looks be so important for food that’s valued for its nutrition?

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Each year, some 2.9 trillion pounds of food goes to waste—enough to feed the estimated 800 million people suffering from hunger worldwide. Part of this wastage is about six billion pounds of produce, unharvested or unsold mainly due to factors of the more aesthetic sort and not necessarily freshness or quality. These outcasts are commonly referred to as “ugly produce” or “imperfect produce”—deformed or crookedly shaped. This is different from being rotten, spoiled, or contaminated as to make a person ill. 
 
There are natural and environmental causes for produce to grow into “irregular” shapes. Sometimes, too much fertilizer, or too little, can cause slight deformities. In the case of carrots, the tips can easily be damaged while growing against rocks in the soil, thus causing a split and sprouting multiple roots from one point as a result. Irregular pockets of manured soil could also prod young carrots to grow in different directions, eventually forming unsymmetrical shapes. Skin blemishes are also a common issue for produce rejection, however slightly more forgivable than irregular shapes and formations. 
Fruits are usually more vulnerable to surface damage and bruising, thanks to hail storms, rain, sun exposure, or humidity. The exterior damage would render these fruits unsellable in most supermarkets, regardless if texture and flavor are unaffected. While on display, shoppers use their tactile and olfactory senses when selecting and deciding on which fruit or vegetable to buy; poking, smelling, possibly mishandling the produce before buying, if at all. 
 
Perhaps the disadvantage of imperfect fruit would be the expectations on how it’s to be consumed: raw, fresh, uncooked (unless it’s for baking or dessert). As opposed to the imperfect vegetable that would be peeled, chopped, grated, tossed, or cooked until it no longer resembles its original, unusual state.
 
There’s myriad factors as to why produce is not as flawless and perfect as we expect. But, what is “flawless” and “perfect” in nature, if not a relative perception; a construct used to influence consumer behavior and, ultimately, to steer a market economy. Locally and abroad, government policies impose regulatory standards for agricultural produce and food; though necessary for health and hygiene, some still include aesthetics.  
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture USDA Grades and Standards for Fruits and Vegetables dictate an exacting language to describe the physical conditions of produce to be sold in stores. Yet, it’s necessary to point out that not all consumers subscribe to these rules. Here in the Philippines, market vendors chop and repackage un-pretty produce into ready-to-cook kits for a cheaper price. Worldwide, various organizations are working to reduce the escalating problem of food waste and hunger by changing this consumer behavior at the community level. 
 
The Slow Food Movement brings countries together on World Disco Soup Day, the international day to fight food waste by collecting and cooking leftover food—including unwanted produce. 
 
At the end of the day, how much do we even truly care about how a carrot or a mango looks, if it’s still good and nutritional enough to eat?