Does legitimizing “ugly food” reduce food waste?

Photo by Anthony Davison, downloaded from Pexel

To say that Singaporeans’ love for food borders on obsession might not be an understatement. At the dinner table, children who do not finish their food are admonished with images of starving children in Africa, and/or “promises” of a pock-marked spouse in their fate – one scar per grain of rice left behind.

The irony is that despite all this concern about not wasting food, Singapore households throw away the equivalent of 2.5kg bags of rice each week. Just last year, 809,800 tonnes of food was thrown away, and only 16% was recycled, data from the National Environment Agency (NEA) show. Food waste levels in Singapore have stayed around 800,000 tonnes over the last five years.

Human preference for unblemished food

One reason – and the focus of this article – is an aversion towards “ugly food”.

Human beings have a  preference for food that looks good (superficial, but scientifically proven). The visual pleasantness of food was one of the first areas where aesthetic processing first developed, as a matter of survival. In aesthetic processing, the anterior insula in our brains judges how good an object is for us. With regards to food, this means that perfect-looking food is nutritious, while blemished fruit could cause a stomach upset or even death.

Little wonder that in a 2016 survey of 1,000 Singaporeans, household appliance manufacturer Electroluxfound that:

  • 83% of those surveyed would buy fruits and vegetables only if the produce looks fresh and good;
  • 52% would throw away greens that look “ugly”;
  • 25% would never eat misshapen, discoloured, or bruised fruit and vegetables

Tackling the ugly food problem at the grassroots level

In recognition of this aversion, supermarkets have worked around it by cutting the bruised fruit up, and selling them at discounted prices sans the ugly bits. Through this, major supermarket player NTUC FairPrice avoided throwing out 250,000kg of food in 2015-2016

Separately, individuals who subscribe to a “freegan” lifestyle have, through dumpster-diving trips, salvaged fresh produce that was still fit for consumption. Their other finds: packaged food such as biscuits, soft drinks, and even abalone. While stereotypes remain about dumpster diving being dirty and smelly, perceptions are turning more positive with increased media coverage of these night-time veggie hunts. Its legitimacy is also helped by an academic who introduced his students to it.

A less controversial version of that is to swap unused food items and ingredients, i.e. what Electrolux is doing with ten other companies.

More recently, a restaurant started serving dishes cooked with “ugly food”, inspired by Italian chef Massimo Bottura, a 3-star Michelin chef who is on a mission to reduce food waste in Italy. Given Singaporeans’ love for food (and food fads), this effort may just make it hip to eat ugly food.

What more can be done?

A food-waste campaigner has suggested that current efforts to reduce food waste may be more effective if they are framed as money-saving or reputation-keeping actions. Using the using the EAST (easy, attractive, social, timely) framework, this might mean:

Easy

Attractive

Social

  • Display ‘go-green’ labels next to blemished fruit in supermarkets as an incentive for green-conscious consumers to demonstrate their values by picking these.
  • Real stories addressing food waste. These can be styled after platforms such as Humans of Singapore, and include humour. Mere repeated exposure to an object can increase individuals’ preferences for it, food included.
  • Hold cooking demonstrations in the major supermarkets, using “ugly food” ingredients. Hosts could also mention where the food is located, and how they can bring even more cost-savings to the household. Positioning concern about food wastage as a social norm is powerful, because it targets the psychological fear of being different and/or missing out.

Timely

  • Publish calculators for food portion catering sizes in the newspapers and social media, especially during the festive season, as a reminder to buy and prepare just enough.

References

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TODAY, 3 December 2017. More than half of food thrown away by households can be avoided: NEA study. Retrieved online from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/more-half-food-thrown-away-households-can-be-avoided-nea-study

National Environment Agency, accessed 27 November 2018. Food Waste Management. Retrieved online from: https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/3r-programmes-and-resources/food-waste-management

Electrolux, 15 November 2016. Electrolux highlights ugly food with food waste awareness campaign in Asia. Retrieved online from: https://www.electroluxgroup.com/en/electrolux-targets-ugly-food-with-food-waste-awareness-campaign-in-asia-23047/

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