The post below was a collaborative effort between Stephanie, our superstar editor, and me. We discussed and debated on the phone, then quickly hammered out a draft. What you’re about to read is an accurate representation of our collective view on the appearance of vegetables. Laugh at us. We deserve it.
We’ve got to dig beyond the surface to mine true value. Don’t stress about how your fruits and veggies look on the outside.
We’re well aware that we need to increase the amount of produce in our diet. A popular recent strategy has been to “eat the rainbow,” encouraging consumers to include as many colors on our plates as possible. This may be more reflective of a general trend. “You eat with your eyes first” has become a catchphrase taking hold in American culture. We shop for beautiful produce (Whole Foods stock soars), blindly (hmmmm) trusting the outward appearance to be harmonious with our perception of the inner nutritional value.
This trend has led to an exceptional amount of food waste. A recent study highlighted that the U.S. wastes nearly a quarter of the produce it produces, most of it before it ever hits the grocery store shelves, and the global impact is even more substantial.
The results of the study suggest that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. This inevitably also means that huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain.
Retailers and farmers know that when you go to buy apples, you pick the biggest, shiniest specimens available on the shelves. They don’t even bother to ship the “ugly” ones, leaving them to rot in the fields or putting them into animal feed.
I consider myself a bit of an apple connoisseur. I, in very nerdy fashion, rate the quality of each apple I bite into. Over the years, I’ve found many of my tastiest experiences have come when biting into a tiny or misshapen apple. I don’t discriminate against ugly beets or carrots, but most folks do.
In the packing house, all carrots passed through photographic sensor machines, searching for aesthetic defects. Carrots that were not bright orange, had a blend or blemish or were broken were swept off into a livestock feed container. As staff at the farm put it: “Asda insist that all carrots should be straight, so customers can peel the full length in one easy stroke” (Stuart, 2009). In total, 25-30% of all carrots handled by M.H. Poskitt Carrots were out-graded. About half of these were rejected due to physical or aesthetic defects, such as being the wrong shape or size; being broken or having a cleft or a blemish.
We have begun to see some pushback. Heirloom tomato varieties became popular in part due to declining interest in hothouse varieties. We recognized that that the watery taste and mealy texture wasn’t how a tomato was supposed to taste. Sure, the perfectly round, uniformly red orbs look pretty. But it’s the very appearance that means we sacrifice flavor. From NPR:
“The grower is paid for size and yield — and flavor is irrelevant, unfortunately,” Klee says.
In fact, the yield is so great for some tomato varieties that the plant can’t keep up. Because the plants have been bred to produce so many fruits, they can’t produce enough sugars and other nutrients.
“And so what happens is you start to dilute out all of the good flavor compounds, and you get a fruit that you bite into it and it largely tastes like water,” Klee says. “Because that’s mostly what it is.”
It isn’t just the flavor that suffers. The same compounds that tell us something is tasty are what deliver nutrients to our bodies. A 2004 study examined the nutritional value of 43 different fruits and vegetables from 1950 to 1999. They found that 6 out of the 13 nutrients they looked at had declined by 6%-38% in less than 50 years. From neurologicablog.com:
Farmers have favored over the years varieties that are most profitable and convenient – that grow quickly and produce large and pretty produce. However, these traits may come at the expense of things like flavor and nutritional quality.
Another factor for which there seems to be agreement is that for some produce picking them early so that they will transport better, and allowing them to ripen after picking, also can compromise nutritional content.
So next time you go to the grocery store, branch out from just the prettiest produce and look for heirloom varietals. Bring in home, rinse them off…wait, what did we just say about not judging the surface?
Stop freaking out about not washing every vegetable you bring into your house. We’ve talked before about the harm that over sanitizing can do. Yes, the FDA recommends washing your veggies – but they don’t give any guidance on what that means. Veggie washes? Don’t waste your money. They don’t work.
A little dirt isn’t going to kill you. Sure, washing off the pesticides may be a good idea. But if you know where your produce is coming from, the quick rinse doesn’t get rid of bacteria. Moreover, it’s much more likely to just cross contaminate otherwise clean produce in your house, especially those that come in convenience packaging. From a study conducted at UC Davis (pdf link):
In the unlikely event that harmful bacteria are present on a RTE lettuce/leafy greens salad after commercial washing, they are likely to resist removal or inactivation by further washing.
If the following instructions for washing are not followed, there is a risk of cross contamination from hands sinks, colanders, pans and utensils that may be used during washing. This may outweigh any safety benefit that further washing may provide to prewashed, ready-to-eat salads.
Sure, rinsing off might remove some bacteria, but the harmful bacteria tends to require much smaller loads to do harm – and you’re not getting rid of enough to remove your risk. Are you consuming pathogens? Sure. Is that a bad thing? Not so fast. From Scientific American:
In 1989, British physician David Strachan proposed the “Hygiene Hypothesis,” which sought to explain a puzzling series of observations: Children in cities in developed countries and had fewer siblings, those that lived more sanitary lives and presumably had less exposure to infectious diseases, were more likely to develop allergies, asthma and other atopic diseases than those that lived on farms or in developing countries, or that had many siblings. In the nearly 25 years since this was first proposed, a great deal of research has shown that exposure to diverse bacteria or even parasitic worms helps to train and regulate the immune system, preventing it from becoming over-active.
I’m not suggesting you go out and actively seek out parasites, but a little dirt isn’t going to kill you.
When shopping at a supermarket, it’s easy to forget that our vegetables are grown in the dirt – our obsession with cleanliness and sanitation has seeped into our food, and any produce that’s not squeaky clean is discarded or ignored by consumers. Again, it’s important to remember that this concern for cleanliness is not without merit – we know what happens when contaminated food gets into the retail pipeline – but though many microbes live in the earth, soil is not the source of most infectious disease.
Sometimes, the ugliest, dirtiest vegetables can be the biggest gems.