The healthier you eat, the more food you waste — at least, that’s according to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), University of Vermont and University of New Hampshire.
The findings appear in scientific journal PLOS One.
Researchers looked at the amount of food waste generated in the U.S. between 2007 and 2014 and found that U.S. eaters waste more than 150,000 tonnes of food per day, or about 30 per cent of the average daily calories consumed by every American combined.
The waste was categorized into 22 food groups. Among them, fruits and vegetables were wasted the most, generating 39 per cent of the total waste. This was followed by dairy at 17 per cent and meat and mixed dishes at 14 per cent.
“What surprised me the most was the amount of food that we waste each day — almost a pound, and mostly fruits and vegetables,” said Lisa Jahns, the study’s co-author. “It was also surprising that the highest quality diets were associated with the most food waste, but taking into account that the preponderance is fruit and vegetables, it makes sense.”
While researchers acknowledge that eating healthy is important, they’re hoping that when people pursue these diets, they’ll be able to think more consciously about the food they waste in the process of dieting or eating healthier.
The study also found that healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets, but nonetheless led to greater irrigation water waste and pesticides, which are often used at higher rates on average for fruits and vegetables, the authors say.
However, despite that, the study says that while low-quality diets may produce less waste, they come with their own negative impacts, such as low nutritional value and higher rates of cropland waste.
To fight the growing waste, the authors of the study say better education is needed on preparing and storing fresh fruits and vegetables. They also believe sell-by dates and labels for consistency should be revised, as well as food planning and preparation education.
“Food waste is a multi-layered problem that isn’t limited to the dinner plate — or trash bin, in this instance,” Jahns says. “At the least, I hope our findings get consumers thinking more about all that goes into each bite of food — from the farm to fork and even the landfill. Greater awareness in that sense is an important first step in reducing food waste.”
To get the results, the team looked at data on food intake and diet quality from the 2015 Healthy Eating Index and USDA’s What We Eat in America (WWEIA) database, as well as food waste data.
According to a previous study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation published in March, it’s estimated that 168 million tonnes of food are wasted in North America every year – of which 876 pounds per capita are generated by Canadians.
The report also found that the largest amount of food loss and waste in North America occurs at the consumer level (67 million tonnes per year).
The findings, though, don’t really surprise registered dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio of Dietetic Directions.
“Those who purchase more produce and perishable items are at a higher risk of food waste since these foods will go bad,” D’Ambrosio says. “However, this is not to say that there are many conscientious consumers who find ways to use their fresh foods so that they don’t end up in the garbage.”
People, she adds, often purchase fresh produce without a plan for how to use it in their weekly meals or snacks. This leads to food spoilage.
Registered dietitian Nicole Osinga agrees, and adds that it can come down to education.
“There is an abundance of information out there about how to eat healthy, but we may not be educated on how to minimize food waste as much,” she says. “I think frozen fruit and vegetables should be encouraged more, as these can be a healthy option and a way to avoid food waste.”
So what can you do to decrease your food waste?
First, take stock before you grocery shop, D’Ambrosio advises. Be aware of the foods you already have before going shopping so you don’t double up on your food inventory at home.
Second, plan your meals. This goes for small meals as well as big meals. This avoids impulse buying.
Also, know how long the food lasts and make sure to consume it before the due date.
Lastly, get creative with the leftovers. Meats, for example, can be shredded, frozen and then incorporated into casseroles, wraps, soups, and so on, D’Ambrosio says. Leftover fruits, too, can be added to smoothies or Popsicles. Extra veggies can be added to make sauces, soups, stews and broth.