‘Ugly’ Foods, Same Flavour

Food waste is a bigger problem than most people realise.

In fact, nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, as more than 800 million people worldwide go to bed hungry every night. In recent years, wasted food has gained more attention as a genuine health and environmental problem. In 2020, Singapore wasted a shocking 665,000 tonnes of food, which is equivalent to one and a half bowls of rice per person, per day or around 46,000 double decker buses!

Recently, global issues have brought the problem to the forefront. “It’s a combination of looking out into the future and trying to project how we’re going to feed future populations,” says Dana Gunders, M.S., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “We also have climate change that we’re staring in the face.”

It may not be obvious at the moment, but simple things like throwing out perfectly fine but blemished produce from the fridge do cause a larger ripple effect. With about 40% of all food waste happening at the consumer level, it’s really important to take an honest look at why and how it’s happening. To help make reducing food waste a little less overwhelming, here are some common myths and misconceptions about “ugly” foods debunked.

Myth 1: I Don’t Play a Large Part in Food Waste Reduction

While the issue of food waste is indeed a global, large-scale problem, the average person like us can take small, actionable steps towards making an impact. In developed nations, nearly 40% of food waste occurs at retail and consumer levels. A lack of consumer awareness around food labels, a move away from processed food to fresh food, and consumer reluctance to reuse otherwise “ugly” or “scrap” food are partly to blame.

An NEA study in 2017 found that each week, about 2.5kg of avoidable food waste is thrown away by an average Singapore home. Bread, rice, and noodles make up the most commonly wasted food items.

Practical action starts with the understanding that there are two main kinds of wasted food: food loss and food waste. Food loss, otherwise known as unintentional wastage, includes edible food that goes uneaten in any stage. This is often prevalent in developing countries due to poor equipment, transportation, and infrastructure. Food waste, more relevant to consumers, involves food being thrown away either because they have purchased too much, or by retailers who reject them because of falling shorting of aesthetic standards. Our individual food waste is completely within our control – we can start by changing and adapting to our lifestyle and behaviours as we educate ourselves and the people around us to demystify some common food misconceptions.

Myth 2: Best Before Dates Are to Be Strictly Adhered By

How strictly do you adhere to the expiration dates on your products? One of the biggest culprits of food loss is the misleading “best before” date, leading to a great deal of household food waste. While it’s natural to worry about the safety of foods past those dates, in many cases, those are just suggestions by the manufacturers for when they believe the food is at its peak quality. But the dates on food packaging aren’t scientific; they really only represent the manufacturer’s best recommendation of when the products will lose optimal freshness. Past the expiration date, crackers might not be as crisp, yoghurt not as creamy, but in most cases, the products should still be safe to eat – and often tastes exactly the same.

There are some exceptions, however. The “use by” or “packaged on” dates on raw meat, seafood, and ready-made-food are to be strictly adhered to. Having been through temperature changes, it is important to not leave it out in the heat for too long. If you have raw meat in your fridge nearing that expiration date, use it! Cook it for a meal, cook it then freeze it, or simply freeze it raw and use later after thawing.

Lastly, it is important to note that nutritional value can start to decrease after the best before dates. To err on the side of caution, stick to the suggested dates on meal replacements recommended for medical purposes, or infant formula.

The bottom line when it comes to best before dates is that you’re often better off using your best judgement. How you store food is far more important than anything else – store dried, canned and packaged nonperishables in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, while perishables like produce and meat need to be properly stored in the fridge to prolong their freshness.

Myth 3: Ugly Foods Are Poor Quality and Shouldn’t Be Eaten

When shopping for fruit or vegetables, who doesn’t love to see apples that are red, shiny, and shaped perfectly? The immediate assumption would be that it has good taste and good nutrition. But this doesn’t always ring true, and neither does it mean one should avoid produce that may be uneven in colour, dented, or smaller.

An Electrolux Ugly Food Survey found that 83% of Singaporeans will only buy food or fruits that appear fresh and good. This judgement of nutrition, of course, is only superficial. Ugly food is not dangerous to eat as long as the vegetables and fruits are fresh and not rotten.

“Some produce are just ‘naturally ugly-looking,’” says UglyFood co-founder Yeo Pei Shan.

The founder of the local social enterprise elaborates: “At the farm level, some things just don’t go a certain way (in terms of) size or shape. Those are considered ugly, because they fall short of the industrial standards.”

It is important to understand that outward appearance, more often than not, does not correlate to the quality of the produce. In fact, some things that could cause imperfections in food include an incomplete pollination process, resulting in deformities around the seeds of fruits. Other factors beyond our control like frozen dew that kills the development of the flower and makes the fruit a slightly different shape or it getting bruised during transport do not have much effect on humans nor our health.

After all, what your food looks like doesn’t really matter after you wash it properly, cut it up, and turn it into a delicious –and sustainable– meal!