We’re Making the Wrong Type of Food Waste: Nutrient-Dense Foods, Not Junk Food, Leading Food Waste Epidemic

Nutrient-Dense Food, Not Junk, Leading Food Waste Epidemic
iStock/Alexandra Iakovleva

The battle to reverse the egregious levels of food waste across the globe has been waging for years. We know the food we’re wasting – about one-third worldwide and up to 40 percent in the U.S. – could feed hundreds of millions people as well as help to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve begun eating “ugly” fruits and vegetables otherwise destined for the compost pile, and some manufacturers are updating their “best by” dates to extend the shelf-life of food items.

But if you needed even more motivation to get on the reduce-food-waste train, new research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future should do it. The data say that the U.S. is throwing away what amounts to more than half a day’s worth of calories and valuable nutrients, every day, per person.

Because much of the food that’s tossed is fruit or vegetable matter, which is nutrient-dense at peak ripeness, the researchers noted that we’re wasting “healthy” foods at “disproportionately high rates,” reports the Baltimore Sun, while unhealthy junk foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium, and otherwise “empty” calories, are processed to have longer shelf lives, being less prone to spoiling.

“Huge quantities of nutritious foods end up in landfills instead of meeting Americans’ dietary needs,” Marie Spiker, the study’s lead author and a fellow at the Center for a Livable Future, said in a statement. “Our findings illustrate how food waste exists alongside inadequate intake of many nutrients.”

This is a significant problem, particularly as many parts of the country are battling food deserts — urban or rural areas without easy access to supermarkets and fresh, healthy foods where processed foods are more accessible, and often more affordable.

The researchers came to their conclusions using USDA’s Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data on 213 commodities, which highlighted 27 core nutrients being wasted per person per day in the U.S. The number of calories wasted came out to 1,217, more than half of the recommended daily caloric intake (2,000 calories). The researchers also noted 33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber, 1.7 micrograms of vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium, and 880 milligrams potassium, being lost every day in preventable food waste.

The culprits, according to the researchers, include our aesthetic preferences – that perfectly round apple or tomato, for example — which can leave the imperfect selections on the supermarket shelves, if they even make off the farm in the first place. The researchers also pointed to excessively large portions – think Cheesecake Factory where you may exceed your daily recommended caloric intake in just one meal. Other issues are supply chain management like proper rotation of perishable meat and dairy products by distributors or retailers, and difficulty in routing near-expired foods from supermarkets to food banks and shelters.

The U.S. has set a 50 percent reduction in food waste target for 2030.

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