There are times when children might receive some parental prodding to stop playing with their food, but one researcher in New Zealand thinks maybe we should encourage them to have some fun with “ugly food” that might otherwise be thrown away.
Doctoral candidate Annesha Makhal at the University of Otago set out to study how children see deformed fruits and vegetables as part of her marketing program, and she learned they are far more accepting of weirdly spiked carrots or heart-shaped potatoes than adults are.
That’s important because 45 percent of produce is thrown away each year – often at different points in the supply chain – and the visual appeal is one of the biggest reasons. Grown-up shoppers avoid it so retailers don’t want it, even though the taste and nutrition value remains. Yet when it comes to global food systems, it’s the waste that accounts for up to 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in August.
“The United Nations has a goal to halve food loss and waste by 2030, which like many other countries, New Zealand has also adopted,” Makhal said. “Meeting this goal means that we need to identify areas where food waste could be avoided. This is where my research comes in.”
What she did was to arm nearly 100 kids between the ages of 5 and 11 with shopping baskets. They were asked to complete a “shopping list” by choosing two of each fruit or vegetable item on the list. A large assortment of produce items arrayed on display included funny, nubby, ugly and weird foods.
And here’s the thing she learned: the children didn’t care. In fact, they seemed to want the foods in more interesting shapes and Makhal said she watched them use their imaginations in ways not matched by adults who have learned to choose “perfect” instead. The kids generally preferred both twisty and tasty, although they avoided items with bruises or brown marks.
“I like it, I like how it’s bent because I like all sorts of carrots,” said an 8-year-old boy. “It’s different and it’s twisted,” said one of his counterparts, an 11-year-old girl who preferred the “ugly” version. The kids also were attracted to misshapen fruits when they saw them as objects or characters.
Makhal’s research findings appear to support some seasonal marketing strategies such as “freaky fruits” sold at Halloween. “We believe in zero waste and using everything first as decorations and then eating it,” says Talia Shandler, vice president of produce wholesaler Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler in the United States. “We call it ‘table-to-table,’” she added in a recent holiday “fun food” interview with Progressive Grocer.
That sense of adventure is what Makhal thinks might work all the time, if retailers make space for the wonky foods that kids will want. “Specifically, most children were willing to eat produce with shape, size, and color defects. That means retailers can target produce with such cosmetic defects to children,” she said. “The more consumers we can get to accept ugly produce, the more fruits and vegetables we can save from the landfills, which is a step closer to an environmentally sustainable food supply chain.”