Saturday, May 11, 2013

Eating With Our Eyes

Don't judge a book by its apple by its skin, a carrot by its shape or lettuce by its color. Its this tendency to judge food quality based on aesthetics that accounts for a significant amount of our food waste. In the UK about 20-40% of fruits and vegetables are rejected by supermarkets because they don't meet strict cosmetic standards. If its not a health concern, is there any validity to these superficial assessments?

In a sense, yes. Studies have shown that visual stimuli can influence our perception of taste. The stronger the correlation between, a certain color or texture of food and a desirable taste, the more these visual queues can alter perceived flavor. These superficial assesments govern our decision of what produce to purchase at the grocery store.

Consumers aren't entirely to blame - cosmetic filtering of food begins at the source. Farmers can only sell crops that meet government issued standards based on size, color, weight, blemish level, and Brix (the measure for sugar content). What doesn't make the cut is either diverted to animal feed or the landfill. Take for instance the carrot quality standards set by supermarket chain, Asada. For his book,”Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” , Tristram Stewart (seen in video previously posted) visited several farms in England who supply produce for this chain. One of which was M.H. Poskitt Carrots in Yorkshire. He learned that carrots must pass a pretty rigorous screening test to be cleared for sale to the supermarket. No, literally, a screening test. The carrots pass under a photographic sensor to test for aesthetic defects. If the carrots are not brigh enough, or bent, or blemished they are swept off to a livestock feed container. The farmers were told that, “all carrots should be straight, so customers can peel the full length in one easy stroke” (Stuart, 2009). This requirement seems ridiculous out of context, but it speaks to the sort of snap judgements consumers make when presented with two brands of carrots. People will most likely choose the more symmetrical carrots after making a subcoucious assessment that they're more convenient to cook with.

The food I’m talking about has all the same vitamins and nutrients as their prettier counterparts. In fact, the blemished produce could be more nutritious. The point is, its all edible, just not *sellable.* Even after the food is purchased, we continue to hold these prejudices against food that does not meet our (at times) arbitrary standards of freshness. So your apple has a bruise - big deal. Is it poisoned? No, you're not Snow White. Are there raser blades stuck inside? No, its not Halloween in the 70's. OK, so its pretty unlikely to be life threatening. Just slice off the bruise or eat around it, problem solved. You might be thinking this problem is minute detail in the scheme of things, but when you're presented with *defective* produce isn't that what it boils down to? Menial tasks can be so burdensome and I cant deny that humans are predisposed to set an aesthetic standard for food. My point is that its entirely possible to disregard that visceral reaction and go against the grain by choosing the produce that others would turn their noses up at.

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