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Why We Waste


September/October 2018

Here’s what my kitchen looks like at 8:30am most mornings: cereal squares engorged with lukewarm milk float in plastic bowls perched on the sink’s edge; browning, bitten apple slices litter a plate; the dog sniffs under the kitchen stools, trying to lick up a pile of oats that the three-year-old dropped on the floor while “making her own breakfast”; half a mushy banana relaxes on the back of the living room couch. The big kids have just left in a puff of dust to catch the bus, and the little one is staring up at me, pajamas encrusted with oatmeal, asking to go outside and blow bubbles.

And guilt oozes out of me. Especially now. I am in the middle of writing this story on food waste—full of knowledge and insight into why we do it and how not to—yet here I am, waist deep in wasted breakfast. I try to cut the brown part off the apple, but then there’s nothing left. I manage to rescue some of the banana for a future smoothie. But the bloated breakfast cereal? I’m sorry, no. A look inside my fridge reveals even more food crimes—three-day-old leftovers from a dinner no one liked, a half-bunch of slimy cilantro from last week’s burritos, and old, stale rolls from a weekend barbecue. Almost all this food will eventually end up in my trash can, and I’m always at a loss as to how it happens. >br>
The fact is, about 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States ends up in the trash can, according to recent data from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Let’s sit with that number for a minute. That means 8 out of every 20 slices of bread, 5 eggs per dozen, a breast and a leg from every rotisserie chicken—produced with the same energy, water, food and fertilizer as the 60 percent we do eat—dumped into a landfill to rot. Food waste is also at an all-time high—50 percent greater than it was in the 1970s.

And much of it is happening under our watch. Households throw out more food than grocery stores or restaurants, accounting for 43 percent of total food waste. To put it in more salient terms, a family of four chucks $1800 worth of food a year, according to a 2016 analysis by the non-profit organization Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED). Yet 75 percent of us believe we waste less than the average American. “People don’t know they’re doing it. They don’t think they’re the problem,” says food waste expert Dana Gunders, who authored the NRDC report that kickstarted the national conversation about this issue back in 2012, as well as last year’s follow-up study. What's more: research shows that health conscious people and those concerned about foodborne illnesses are the worst culprits.

Of course, growing food that no one eats isn’t just hard on our wallets, it’s also hard on the environment. Twenty-one percent of agricultural water in the U.S. (more than California, Texas, and Ohio combined) goes to food that gets wasted, 19 percent of croplands grow food that’s later tossed, and 21 percent of landfill content is rotting food—which in turn produces a whole lot of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (The problem is so great that some states have begun regulating it. Vermont, for one, is banning food from entering landfills after 2020.) As a final flourish on this ethical quagmire, studies show that we could feed all the hungry people in the U.S. with less than a third of the food we throw out.

Given the terrible consequences of tossing so much food - an estimated 68 percent of which is edible - why do we do it? It seems irrational, and researchers note that almost everyone feels bad about it—which is why they’ve been turning to psychology to explain the web of choices, thoughts and feelings that result in discarded food. Turns out, we don’t waste because we’re lazy, gluttonous, indifferent or spoiled. Each of us does it for our own, often subconscious reasons—making a one-size-fits-all solution impossible. But based on the common mental pitfalls here, there are plenty of ways we can all do better.

Grocery Shopping Mind Games

Victoria Ligon, M.S., is a consumer science researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson who became curious about food waste in 2011—a pretty obscure topic back then. On a whim, she attended a lecture by a garbologist (yep, that's an actual field of study) at the university, who had performed anthropological studies on people’s trash—picking through garbage to see how much of it was food. “I remember being totally fascinated by his talk,” says Ligon. “The psychological issues related to food discard were especially interesting. I remember him saying that his grad students would literally watch people scrape plates of food into the trash as they proclaimed that in their family they ate leftovers and never wasted.”

That cognitive dissonance struck her, and she later decided to study exactly what runs through our minds as we gather, prepare and clean up the food that fuels our bodies—with an eye to waste. In 2014, she published the results of a study that had asked people in-depth questions about their shopping, prepping, and discarding habits. Some interesting observations emerged. First, people tended to shop only about once a week, and at a bunch of different stores. They spent a considerable amount of time getting it done, and found it exhausting having to navigate huge stores filled with tens of thousands of options (choice overload!).

But the major finding was this: because people shopped so infrequently, they bought too much food, a lot of which got tossed. “At the most basic level, household food waste happens because the modern American tendency to shop infrequently is at odds with basic human abilities to predict future food consumption needs,” Ligon explains in the study. It’s called “inaccurate affective forecasting.” People have a hard time knowing what they’ll want and feel a few days down the line. And planning meals for a whole week - an sticking to that plan - is practically impossible. We overestimate, for example, our desire for variety—so we buy a bunch of different breakfast foods, but end up eating pretty much the same thing each morning. Life plays a role, too. We may plan to make vegetable pasta for dinner on Wednesday, but come Wednesday night we get home late and don’t have time to cook, or the kids insist on something else, and those veggies wither and end up in the trash a few days later.

Danesha Collins, a mom and technical writer outside of Boston, can relate. “It’s funny because when I waste food it’s most often because I’ve gotten bored with the usual meals we eat. So I buy all these wonderful things that go into a new recipe,” she says. “Inevitably, I don’t have time to make it. And those ingredients sit in my refrigerator until they go bad—or I throw them away, just to stop stressing about them.”

People also overbuy when they feel resources are abundant, which they generally are in America. Homes are more than double the size they were decades ago, kitchens have more storage and fridges are bigger (22.5 cubic feet versus 19.6 in 1980). So we fill them up, which provides more opportunity for food to go bad and be wasted. Research shows that big bulk food stores like Costco encourage us to buy larger amounts, as well, because the items seem cheaper on a per-serving basis, even though food is already the cheapest it’s been in modern history. Grocery store promotions (buy one, get one free!) lead to overpurchasing, too. “It’s kind of a perfect storm,” says Ligon. “We have this situation where the pain of throwing away food is not that strong because it wasn’t that expensive in the first place and you can just go buy more.”

And when jumping at these bargains, people don’t take into account the cost of the food they inevitably waste. “We are very price-sensitive about specific purchases, but have very little sense of our grocery budget overall,” says Ligon. So when we see a buy-one-container-of-strawberries-get-one-free, we are prone to stock up because we think we’re saving money, even if we could never eat them all before they go bad. In many ways, then, we aren’t consciously making the decision to overbuy. Our shopping habits and work-life craziness coax us into the land of waste.

The Foodie Effect

People who love to cook and eat adventurously (like all of us here at EatingWell and probably everyone holding this magazine right now) may also waste more, new research has shown. Trying exotic recipes is fun, but it can also mean picking up ingredients you’ll never use again and ultimately throw away. Chervil. Anchovy paste. Jicama. Does that mean we should change our foodie ways? A thousand times no. Ligon says it just means being mindful and creative about cooking with those extras. (Like Middle Eastern herbs and spices you have left over from this issue. See “Use Up Those Specialty Ingredients” on page 110 for ideas on other ways to use them up!)

Ligon believes there’s a fundamental sociological reason we waste more food today, as well: “Fifty years ago, most families had someone whose primary role was domestic tasks—planning the menu, purchasing food, cooking, putting away leftovers and possibly even gardening. And it was almost certainly a woman. She would have been trained since childhood to be good at these kind of things. But we don’t have that anymore.” Ligon’s not waxing nostalgic. Her point is that because these tasks have become more egalitarian—which is wonderful—“now nobody has that high-level holistic understanding of the family’s food usage, and so the possibility of getting it right becomes very unlikely.”

Emotions Rule

As big of an issue as overbuying is, the food waste problem goes even deeper into our psyche—into emotional territory. And often, those feelings are very negative. “I’ll get a whole bunch of produce and it will go bad in the refrigerator,” says Collins. “That’s the most upsetting for me. I feel bad that I’ve wasted healthy food and probably eaten the unhealthy stuff instead.” Adds Jen Coyle, a mother and public health educator from outside Boston: “I have a lot of conflicting emotions and end up feeling awful no matter what: either I waste the food, or I risk maybe making someone sick by serving it.”

Negative emotions like Collins's and Coyle's play a surprising role in how much food we waste, according to Sally Russell, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of business and sustainability at the University of Leeds in England. She studies what motivates people to change their behavior, especially with regards to the environment and food waste. Most psychological research uses a framework called “the theory of planned behavior”—which posits that every action you take is the result of your rational, thoughtful intentions. If you buy a bunch of bananas and intend to eat them, for example, then you will eat every last banana, no matter how brown or flaccid.

But humans aren’t robots, and that’s not how we function in the real world. Russell noticed that emotions—sometimes wild, always salient—were conspicuously absent from this model, and no one had looked to see if your feelings could determine whether or not you waste those bananas. She began working with the supermarket giant Asda—the United Kingdom’s version of Walmart—and last year created four online surveys that asked 170 customers questions about how often they wasted certain foods, what specific emotions they felt in that moment, and whether they intended to reduce their food waste.

What Russell found was both fascinating and totally counterintuitive: people who reported negative feelings, such as guilt, tied to throwing away food intended to waste less, but actually tossed more food than those who didn’t feel as bad about it—and the stronger those negative feelings were, the more food they wasted. Our underlying emotions appear to muddy the waters of rational choice. Why? “One of the ways we cope with a negative emotion is to do something to immediately get rid of it, rather than let it change our decision or behavior,” Russell explains. In other words, just chuck that brown banana—make it disappear and be done with the mental struggle and uncomfortable feelings, rather than take the time to freeze it for a smoothie, or even put it in the fridge to postpone those negative emotions until later, when the banana has become completely inedible and the decision is easier. “That’s why interventions that make people feel bad about food waste aren’t effective,” says Russell, “because they have the opposite outcome.”

The Food Label Factor

Best by, sell by, use by—almost every packaged food has a date stamped on the label, often preceded by one of these phrases. What many people don’t know is that none of these terms is regulated or standardized by the federal government. (Infant formula is the one and only exception.) Typically, these dates simply indicate how long the manufacturer estimates the product will remain at top quality. But many customers see them as markers of food safety, or are confused about what they mean. (See “Label Date Terms, Decoded” on page 103.) As a result, studies show that people tend to toss food as soon as it approaches or passes the date on the label. “They’re throwing it out because they’re worried it’s not good anymore, and could accidentally make them sick,” says Gunders. “And often that’s not the case.” In fact, confusion over date labels leads to 20 percent of edible, safe food waste.

Case in point: Norbert Wilson, Ph.D., an agricultural economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, was intrigued by this confusion. He conducted an experiment where 200 men and women were shown three products—cereal, salad greens and yogurt—with a variety of terms in front of the expiration date: “use by,” “best by,” “sell by” and “fresh by.” Participants were then asked how much they’d be willing to pay for the products, and what percentage of them they thought they would consume. (This was a clever way to determine how much food they expected to waste before they even brought the items home.) “It was really interesting to me that there was a realization on the part of the consumer that they were probably not going to consume all of this food. Some portion of it they were going to throw away,” says Wilson. They accept that waste at the point of purchase. Overall, consumers predicted they’d toss more of the foods labeled “use by” compared to those with other phrases, like “best by”—likely because they believed the items wouldn’t be safe close to or after that date. Indeed, the percentage they estimated wasting was highest among foods with the shortest shelf life—the salad greens and yogurt—and lowest for cereal. However, for quality-related terms, like “fresh by,” participants predicted tossing more of the cereal (which could go stale) than the other items. “It tells me that the date label means something powerful,” says Wilson.

Both the government and food industry have moved toward winnowing the more than dozen label date terms used now down to just two - “best if used by,” indicating peak quality, and “use by,” for highly perishable products that may pose a safety concern if eaten much past the date. Manufacturers were asked to adopt the new wording by this past summer, but it’s entirely voluntary. And Wilson points out there needs to be a strong public education campaign around the change, or consumer confusion will continue.

A Future With Less Waste

Provisioning a house with food to power a family is a demanding, unremitting task for a time-poor American. Juggling work, commutes, kids with intricate sports schedules - and a whole host of psychological factors - predisposes us to waste food. To fix the problem, we’ll need to become more adept at shopping, prepping, storing and consuming—as well as dealing with food-related emotions and the push-pull of competing values. It’s an uphill battle.

But what can be achieved is great: research shows that if every household in the country reduced their food waste by even a modest 25 percent, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 7 million tons a year—equivalent to taking 1.5 million cars off the road. And then there’s the annual family savings.

I'm trying to be one of those households. Mornings are still a messy dance, and the dog still laps up dropped oats and cereal (which I guess means it’s technically not wasted). But now I hand out smaller breakfast portions, pack what I can in containers for later and put them front and center in the fridge, so they won’t be forgotten. I try to shop smarter, and more often, too. It’s not perfect, but less wasteful than before—a small but meaningful dent in that 40 percent.


10 Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste A study examining whether people could change their behavior and reduce how much food they wasted found that providing a flood of information—use veggie scraps to make stock! Preserve produce before it goes bad!—wasn't helpful. What was: targeted, personalized recommendations based on people's biggest sticking points. Take a look at the scenarios that follow, see which resonate most with you, and use the advice to help reduce your food waste footprint.

1. If you don’t think you waste a lot of food—or don’t have a feel for how much you toss.
Most people don’t. (Remember that 75 percent stat?) Roni Neff, Ph.D., a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, recommends non-judgmentally jotting down all the food you throw away for a few days—to get a sense of what and when you waste, from the food your kid throws on the floor to the leftovers left too long in the fridge. Then you can address those issues one by one. Oh, and when you do have to toss something (realistically, some amount of waste is almost inevitable), don't feel guilty. Seriously. Feeling bad about it, as the research shows, will likely make the problem worse. Better to focus on why the waste happened and what positive changes you can make going forward.

2. If you tend to do one big grocery run a week and overbuy ingredients.
Shop for dinner (the meal that most often gets scrapped) several times a week. This was Ligon’s number one tip for preventing overbuying in general. To make it easier, try ordering ingredients online from grocers with same-day delivery or a supermarket that offers drive-thru pick-up—or swing in yourself on the way home. (It might sound like a hassle, but when you’re only grabbing a handful of items you’ll be in and out in minutes.) Or keep a cooler in your car and shop during your lunch break.

3. If you love trying new recipes.
Stick to a specific type of cuisine—Thai, Mexican, Japanese—for several meals a week, since they tend to use the same ingredients. For recipes that call for a small amount of meat, cheese or produce, check the grocery store salad bar. (Why buy a block of feta if you only need two tablespoons? Or a whole head of romaine if you only need a handful?) Get creative, too, like those mystery basket chefs do on TV. And plan for a clean-out-the-fridge stir-fry, soup, or pasta at the end of the week to use whatever odds and ends you have left.

4. If you often forget leftovers in the fridge.
Pack them in individual containers for lunches the night you make the meal or bring it home from the restaurant. If you freeze them, be sure to label and date the leftovers and put them on your list of planned meals for the week—so the freezer doesn’t just acts as a food waste halfway house.

5. If you frequently succumb to bargains (hello BOGO).
Make a pact with yourself to only go for a sale item if it’s non-perishable, like pasta or cereal, and something you would normally buy anyway. For things like meat or produce, if you have a specific meal in mind for it, fine—but if not, keep walking.

6. If you’re a “good provider” who wants people to feel well-fed, but then make too much food.
Freeze the leftovers right away in individual lunch-sized portions so they don’t have time to go bad in the fridge. For dinner parties, send guests home with the extras. Also handy: a portion planner (like the one at savethefood.com/guesstimator) can help you more accurately figure out how much food to make.

7. If you chuck foods because you can’t remember when you put them in the fridge or freezer.
Get into the habit of labelling. Everything. Keep a Sharpie and roll of masking tape right next to the SubZero and jot the date you made that big batch of chili, when you opened that carton of stock, or when you put those shrimp in the deep freeze. Also, org your fridge with the newest stuff in the back and the oldest in the front where you can see it.

8. If your kids don’t eat all their food. Be realistic, not blindly optimistic—and give them smaller portions. They can always have seconds. Or take less yourself, knowing you may be nibbling whatever they leave behind.

9. If you often buy things on the fly. Meal plan carefully (use the shopping lists and tools at eatingwell.com) and try not to deviate from the items on your list. “Be practical about whether you are going to have the opportunity to use it that week,” says Dana Gunders. Research shows that shoppers who stick to their grocery lists are less susceptible to impulse buys, spend less on groceries and don’t waste as much.

10. If shopping at bulk stores makes you load up. Be strategic. Stuff that can stick around a long time (boxed broth, kosher salt, steel cut oatmeal) gets a green light, but that giant sack of grapefruit? Maybe not. Or try splitting purchases with another family.

Label Date Terms, Decoded
Confusion over phrases like "use by" and "sell by" causes a tremendous amount of waste - in part because there are no standardized definitions for them. Knowing what these labels really mean could set your mind at ease and save you a whole lot of food.

Sell by: This label is meant for the retailer, not you. It lets the folks who stock the grocery store shelves know that a product shouldn't be sold after that date to ensure peak quality, and it gives consumers time - usually about a week, depending on the item - to eat it once they bring it home. It's not an indication of food safety.

Best by, or Best before: Terms like these indicate the food company's best guess as to how long the product will keep at its peak quality. They don't have anything to do with safety.

Use by: OK, this one is confusing. Both the FDA and the USDA say that, like "best by," the phrase "use by" has to do with quality, and isn't related to safety except for infant formula. However, new guidelines from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) define "use by" as a hard cutoff date - after which the product may not be safe. Because these conflicting recommendations are voluntary, there's no way t know whether that bag of baby spinach carries the FDA's definition of "use by" (it's OK to eat after that date) or GMA's/FMI's (it's not).

What's not on the label that you should know: No matter what phrase you see, experts say not to freak out and automatically toss a food because it's approaching or just over the label date. Use your best judgement. Eyeball it. Give it a sniff. It it doesn't look spoiled, have an off odor and has been stored properly it's probably fine. A few exceptions: if you're pregnant or have a compromised immune system it's not worth the risk. Also, deli meat, uncooked hot dogs, unpasteurized milk, soft cheese, raw sprouts, melons and smoked seafood can harbor Listeria - bacteria you can't see or smell - even at fridge temperatures. Don't take any chances with those.

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