US households waste up to 40% of their fresh produce. The amount that’s lost in fields, warehouses, and stores before it even gets to the consumer is even higher. What’s worse is that most of this wasted food is perfectly edible. So, how do you know the difference between a usable piece of produce and one that needs to be thrown out?
Spoilage vs. cosmetic damage
The first thing you need to understand is the difference between spoilage (damage to the food’s nutritional value, taste, and texture) and cosmetic changes or damage. Spoilage is a natural process that is typically caused by enzymes in produce that lead to ripening. Signs of spoilage include foul taste or odor, and extreme changes in texture, like stickiness or wetness. Even though microorganisms, like mold or yeast, can cause spoilage they don’t usually cause illness. (Contrary to food-borne pathogens like E. coli that don’t typically cause any changes in smell, taste, or texture, but can make you very sick. Mother Nature LOLs at us.) Physical damage (bruising), temperature (warmer temperatures usually accelerate spoilage), and time (everything should spoil eventually) round out the causes of food spoilage.
Many of us either reject damaged produce in the store, or throw it away at home. Bruises, wilting, and discolorations are all things that seem unattractive, but have minimal effect on the product. Bruised sections of fruits and veggies can be cut off, and the rest of the product eaten. Wilted greens and fruits can be cooked or used in smoothies. Berries and other fruits that are past their prime can be frozen for later use. Most discolorations are only cosmetic, and have no effect on the product.
Make sure you’re keeping your produce at the proper temperature. A shortcut to understanding if something requires refrigeration is to look at where it’s kept in the store. Is it room temperature, or is it in one of the coolers? Also, most things will keep longer if they’re not touching one another, so remove them from any plastic bags they’re kept in, if possible. The FoodKeeper app is a database that gives information for the best place to store produce, and how long it should last. I thought the timelines seemed a little short, but it’s a good starting place. Don’t pay attention to how long something “should” last, pay attention to it’s actual taste, texture, and smell. I’ve had bagged salad get all slimy and gross in 1-2 days, and I’ve had it last 2-3 weeks. Do what you can, but produce is a bit of a crap shoot.
In the pictures above, only the middle apple is spoiled and should be thrown out. Sprouted onions are fine. Apples and bananas with spots are also fine. (Why does everyone insist on eating green-ass bananas? They aren’t ripe, people!) The potatoes have some damage from the harvesting machine, which may make them go bad faster, but they’re completely fine now.
Next time, we’ll talk about expiration dates (mostly bogus), and how to tell if dairy, meat, and packaged foods are spoiled.
Have you ever thrown out fruits and veggies because you weren’t sure if they were okay? How are you cutting back on your family’s food waste? Leave a comment!