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Americans waste a pound of food a day — at a big environmental cost, study finds

REUTERS/Jim Young
The study estimates that 30 million acres of land in the United States — 7 percent of the country’s total cropland — is used each year to grow the food we buy but never eat.

American consumers waste almost a pound of food each day, and the biggest culprits are those with the healthiest diets, according to a study published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.

That’s because fruits and vegetables, which are key to a healthy diet, are the most likely foods to be thrown out before being consumed.

The study also estimates that 30 million acres of land in the United States — 7 percent of the country’s total cropland — is used each year to grow the food we buy but never eat, as well as 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water, 780 million pounds of pesticides and 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. 

That’s an astounding amount of wastage. The study’s findings underscore, therefore, how public health efforts to encourage people to improve their diets need to be accompanied by simultaneous educational campaigns to teach people how to reduce food waste.

“Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” said Meredith Niles, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor in food system sustainability and policy at the University of Vermont, in a released statement. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.”

Many databases

For the study, Niles and her colleagues, which included researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of New Hampshire, analyzed eight years of data (2007-2014) from a variety of government databases. These included the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (for information about Americans’ diets), the USDA Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data Series (for information on household food waste) and various USDA Agricultural Surveys (for national use-rate information on water irrigation, fertilizers and pesticide).

The analysis revealed that Americans throw out 150,000 tons of food daily — or about 25 percent of all food (by weight) available for consumption in the United States. Fruits and vegetables accounted for most (39 percent) of that waste, followed by dairy items (17 percent), meat (14 percent) and grains (12 percent). 

On an individual basis, that comes out to about 422 grams — or just under one pound — of food per person per day. 

The higher the quality of people’s diets, the more food they tended to waste. The 20 percent of Americans with the least healthy diets in the study threw away an average of 295 grams of food per day, while the 20 percent with the healthiest diets wasted an average of 535 grams per day. 

Higher quality diets — ones rich in fruits and vegetables — were also associated with a greater squanding of irrigation water and pesticides, although not with a greater waste of fertilizers. For example, of the 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water linked to food wastage each year, 1.3 trillion gallons were used to grow uneaten fruits and 1 trillion gallons were used to grow uneaten vegetables.

“The conventional wisdom has been that higher quality diets have less environmental impact, although others cast doubt on this assertion,” write Niles and her colleagues in their paper. “Our findings add critical nuance to this debate.”

“Past investigators have highlighted the land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of producing animal-sourced foods, especially beef,” they explain. “However, as our results highlight, higher quality diets contained greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which require far less land to produce compared to many other foods. Yet a substantially greater proportion of fruits and vegetables were wasted compared to other foods, and fruits and vegetables have higher agricultural input needs (per unit of land area) than most other crops.”

Learn how to prevent waste

The answer isn’t, of course, for people to stop people from eating lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, most Americans consume far too few of these foods. Indeed, only about 1 in 10 adults eat the minimum 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily, as recommended by health experts.

Instead, write Niles and her colleagues, efforts need to be made to increase “consumers’ knowledge about how to tell when fruits and vegetables are ripe, how to store and prepare them, and how to tell the difference between bruises/abrasions and spoilage.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a long list of planning, storage, preparation and “thriftiness” tips for reducing food waste at home. Here are some of their storage tips for fruits and vegetables:

  • Freeze, preserve, or can surplus fruits and vegetables — especially abundant seasonal produce.
  • Many fruits give off natural gases as they ripen, making other nearby produce spoil faster. Store bananas, apples, and tomatoes by themselves, and store fruits and vegetables in different bins.
  • Wait to wash berries until you want to eat them to prevent mold.
  • If you like to eat fruit at room temperature, but it should be stored in the refrigerator for maximum freshness, take what you’ll eat for the day out of the refrigerator in the morning.

Consumer Reports also offers this storage tip:

  • Asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, lettuce, and spinach should be stored under cold, moist conditions. Put them in plastic bags that have holes, then in your refrigerator’s high humidity drawer. Stored that way, broccoli and spinach can last up to two weeks, lettuce up to three weeks, and carrots up to five months.

FMI:You can read the study in full on the PLOS ONE website. For more tips on reducing food wastage in your home, go to the EPA’s website.

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