Why Buy Ugly?

According to National Geographic, about one-third of all global food production goes to waste. Even more staggering, nearly two-thirds of that waste is caused neither by drought, poor refrigeration nor insects, but rather results from the way the food looks. That means that “an estimated six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year in the U.S. because they are ugly” (Huffington Post).

While many restaurants repurpose so-called ugly food in order to cut cost and minimize waste in the kitchen and while certain grocery stores and organizations have programs to sell and promote ugly food, the solution to the problem lies primarily with the consumer (Think Progress).

According to the produce manager at my local Whole Foods Market, team members can’t display ugly items, a common practice among nearly all grocery stores. Any fruit or vegetable with a bruise, a scratch or a discoloration on its skin remains in the back, away from the sight of the customer. Whole Foods reuses almost all of its ugly produce by either juicing it or sending it to the kitchen, yet individual stores almost never receive deformed or irregular items because they get sorted out by the producers. While forward-thinking stores can change how they repurpose discarded produce, they are still at the mercy of what they receive from farmers and suppliers.

If the average person were willing to buy misshapen fruits and vegetables, then producers wouldn’t need to hide these items or throw them away. The question is, how can we change these dangerous ideas and convince people to quit looking for platonically ideal food?

I think examining what ugly foods we already buy makes a great place to start. If by ugly we mean irregularly shaped and strange looking, then a few foods immediately come to my mind: ginger, heirloom tomatoes and oysters.

Because it’s a rhizome, ginger looks quite bizarre. Its nodes jut out haphazardly, and no two roots look the same. Regardless of its odd looks, you still see photos and prints of the root on containers of ground ginger, and I’ve never heard anyone call it gross. Ginger seems to be loved for its quirkiness. Since people only eat it ground or finely diced, they never see an oddly shaped root of ginger sitting on the plate in front of them. As a result, they can appreciate its ugliness from afar.

The heirloom tomato also seems cherished for its irregularity. Whereas most consumers hesitate to purchase an oblong or multicolored beefsteak or cherry tomato, no one hesitates to buy an heirloom. The vibrant spectrum of colors and the array of shapes and sizes make the heirloom tomato endearing, not reviled. I recently saw a commercial for Blue Apron that used the heirloom tomato’s diversity and beauty to market its ingredients as “fresh” and “incredible.” The heirloom’s idiosyncrasies make it charming despite its ugliness.

Although oysters might not be everyone’s favorite food, they are commonly eaten and well respected throughout the country. Not only are their shells misshapen and covered in gnarled calcifications, but they also look quite bizarre on the inside. These mollusks are so ugly that as a child I was told never to look inside of a fried oyster because it would make me sick. Nevertheless, millions of people enjoy shucking and sucking down these ugly creatures, and they are even honored here in Cincinnati at Washington Platform’s annual Oyster Fest.

No one would ever call a wood-fired pizza ugly, but its asymmetry and imperfection are telltale features of ugly food. Instead of being seen as less-than-ideal, people spend more money on irregularly shaped pizzas because of their handmade and rustic charm. Delivery and frozen pizzas may strive for homogeneity, but unique air bubbles, oblong circumferences and inconsistently placed toppings give handcrafted and wood-fired pizzas the stamp of authenticity. When I attended a summer study abroad program to Rome as a college student, I was struck by how the Italians topped their pizzas with blatant disregard for uniformity: basil, cheese and meat were all arranged haphazardly and often in separate piles. While this irregularity is prized in pizza, no one wants to buy a bunch of misproportioned bananas or a carton of malformed strawberries. Asymmetrical food from a restaurant gets labeled as rustic, but when it comes from nature it’s regarded as ugly.

When it comes to food, ugly simply means that it doesn’t live up to the culturally imposed standard of what a proper item should look like. We can combat these harmful and ridiculous standards by enjoying the array of misshapen fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs that we see everyday, and take a sense of pride and comfort in the diversity of Mother Nature’s bounty. Moreover, as the food industry attempts to reinvent itself as being homegrown, farm fresh and all natural, nothing screams natural more than being irregular.

Instead of beginning the conversation about how to alter society’s perception of ugly food with a discussion of why these items shouldn’t be wasted, it might make the transition smoother for most people if they come to terms with the fact that they already buy and enjoy certain ugly foods. How much easier is it to accept misshapen fruits and vegetables when you realize that delicious heirloom tomatoes and delightfully aromatic ginger are both quintessentially ugly? And how much easier is it to sink your teeth into a strange-looking cut of meat – like neck or tongue – when you accept that it’s no uglier than an oyster?

Another option for combatting our society’s phobia of ugly food lies with cooking. If people eat ugly food prepared in a dish – like dicing oft-misshapen carrots and potatoes – it’s impossible to tell what it looked like before it was cooked. Just like with ginger, preparing ugly foods so as to disguise their original form allows eaters to enjoy their meal without being distracted by a food item with a strange appearance. Several restaurants and organizations, in fact, are already doing this (National Geographic).

It’s also important to recognize the role that food photographers, cookbook writers, advertisers and television companies play in shaping society’s image of perfect-looking food. On how many cookbook covers or food blogs will you see an image of an ugly squash? On how many cooking shows will you see hosts or contestants zest a misshapen lemon? And on how many menus will you find images of dishes with strange-looking potatoes? Those who are trying to sell food – whether for a book, a blog, a restaurant or a television show – strive to make it look ideal. If food exudes perfection in the way it looks, we are led to believe that it must taste delicious as well.

While I’m not advocating for anyone, myself included, to start taking terrible photos of food or filming low-quality cooking videos – after all, they’re professionals and that’s what you’re paying them to do – we need to accept that the cumulative effects of seeing only perfect food makes the average person believe that is the only way food should look. I think we should all strive to show people outside of the industry what real food looks like. Don’t shy away from misshapen fruits and vegetables because you’re worried their ugliness will ruin the perfect shot; rather, see it as an opportunity to share that truth with the world.

If average Americans begin to abandon society’s stereotypes about food by accepting that odd appearances and irregular shapes don’t mean that an item is bad – that it’s not moldy or being eaten by worms – then they will be more likely to buy a wider selection of foods at the grocery store. And if consumer trends change, companies won’t have to hide or discard ugly food, allowing more produce and products to be sold, which minimizes waste and lowers production demands. It’s a win-win for everyone – the farmers, the corporations and the consumers – and that’s something we should all strive towards.

So the next time you’re at the supermarket, don’t turn away from ugly food. Instead, revel in its individuality, accept its value and make the conscious decision to do your part to change the way we all think about food.

90 Comments Add yours

  1. My local grocery shop back home have created a ‘wonky box’. All of the unusable fruit and vegetable due to the appearance is split into boxes and sold to the public at a lower price. At first it was a trial but the boxes have proven so popular they are now a permanent item in the store!!

    Liked by 8 people

    1. That’s a fantastic idea! I would buy a wonky box myself!

      Liked by 5 people

  2. shellsstudio says:

    I look and ugly fruit and veggies as if they were people. I don’t mind having a bruised apple or a overly brown banana, a misshapen potato or carrot or even a little badness here and there. I’ve made some of my most awesome dishes using uglies, and they’ve been remembered for years by guests. What really counts is what is underneath the skin.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. thesimplists says:

    Well..looks definitely matter.But I also agree that the so-called ugly veggies can cook great food.So this topic is worth debating on.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. w1nt3l says:

    I consistently get the “day old” produce at my local farmers market. “Day old” is used as a metaphor to indicate fruit and veg that isn’t “perfect” for the large displays. I always pay less and often get perfect food because I don’t have to wait for it to ripen. Doing a lot of juicing and canning helps me get through it each week without it spoiling, and if it does, I just add it to the garden. Life isn’t perfect, and as such, our food shouldn’t be perfect either.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Thanks for this very educational post. Sadly we live in a superficial world but hopefully that will change soon. There is beauty in everything – just a matter of perspective.🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  6. britmade says:

    I think ugly veg also reenforces the idea that this comes from nature… Not everything comes out the ground looking perfect at all… In fact that’s abnormal…ugly veg is more common-especially if I have anything to do in growing it !

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Dangerspouse says:

    I figure if my wife was willing to marry ugly, eating ugly should be no problem at all. I almost never take the aesthetics of my ingredients into account.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. roman853 says:

    A great read. Really well written. i hate waste ans supermarkets are a disgrace with how much food they waste. Check me out too http://roman853.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve heard a lot of people say “seeing” goes hand in hand with what we think is appetizing. The funny thing is if you just cut around the bad spots you don’t have to waste the whole thing!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It is a truly harmful practice we have in our societies, food that is not sold for imperfections should be donated or used in some way to minimize waste. This article provides some interesting things to ponder and change for our planet. Thank you so much for writing this article, hopefully many cooks will follow in on the practice of using normal produce, instead of the ones picked for beauty!

    Liked by 5 people

  11. vino says:

    Normally the not so shiny fruits n vegies are the ones escaped from pesticides. This i always keep in mind when i see the showcased beauties

    Liked by 4 people

  12. writegill says:

    An excellent criticism of the superficial – of the trap between form and content – of the inability to appreciate the essentials.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Well said! To think that a vegetable somehow tastes worse because it’s an imperfect shape is so traffic when one thinks how

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Whoops – many are thrown away.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. My mother always tries to buy fruits and vegetables at the local farmers market instead of big supermarkets. Food in supermarkets looks too perfect, which is actually not easy to achieve if fruits and veggies were grown natural way, without pesticides and chemicals. She prefers bruised, misshaped and natural over shiny and superficial looking food.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Laarni says:

      This is true for me too. Mom always told us to avoid perfect-looking vegetables and fruits, so I always go for the lettuce with holes.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Eye-opening read…thanks for helping us all keep it real!

    Liked by 4 people

  17. kertsen says:

    I don’t for one moment believe we are following societies stereotypes ever since choice was available we have made our choice in all things. Cave man chose the easiest and best game to kill and cave woman the best apples to collect. The hungry ate roots and grass just as they do today. Now some things are deceptive , it may be difficult to tell a good potatoes from glassy ones , or sweet oranges from bitter ones and if you watch the choosers they spend sometime smelling feeling and looking just as I do.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. trueilliad says:

    Very good info. I have found that some produce, that didn’t look as good as it could have, tasted wonderful.
    https://trueilliad.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Great points here! And I prefer bananas with brown spots!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Ever since I started buying exclusively organic produce, I’ve found I have to be willing to buy blemished food, especially if I’m lucky enough to get heirloom produce, which so often tastes better than food designed for shipability. Buying blemished fruits and vegetables requires a little more planning because we have to use the food sooner to prevent spoilage and we have to take time to cut away those spots. It’s worth it, tho, to get more flavor.

    Thank you for this perspective–of thinking of the non-uniform foods we already accept. You’re on to something there!

    Liked by 2 people

  21. GeekyFitGirl says:

    It’s so hard not to buy the “pretty” fruit or veggies but I have been pleased when I do buy ugly! Great read. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. montyd88 says:

    It is all about marketing. If a produce looks ugly, not many people will buy that produce. In a way, we have been accustomed to purchasing beautiful looking food. I mean, it really makes us want to buy that product immediately. I personally do not eat the skin of any fruits of vegetables because of the wax. You do make some great points! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. It’s always fun finding siamese twin fruit

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Super informative, thank you! Definitely have me rethinking my food choices.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. I wouldn’t mind buying “ugly” fruits and vegetables, but I do wish that more supermarkets and farmers’ markets adopt discount policies. Some markets do, some don’t. For markets near me, consumers pay the same whether or not they buy the “uglies” or the “pretties”–I can see why people would choose to go for the pretties (same price, might as well get the most out of it in visuals too).
    Also, instead of throwing away the ugly piles of still edible food, it’d be very generous for the markets to donate to community food shelters. There’s just so many ways we can provide food to ourselves and to others without purposely throwing them away.

    Liked by 4 people

  26. After watching the documentary Just Eat It, my eyes were opened to this problem of food waste. Two people scrounge for food waste for a year and only consume “wasted items.”
    As an adamant advocate for the clean plate club, I was amazed at the how much food is wasted and not allowed to even touch my plate. This article highlights the film’s main concern, and I agree. This is something that needs to be reinforced at the supermarket level.
    I highly recommend watching the documentary if you’re interested to see their journey and discoveries with this issue.

    Liked by 4 people

  27. Most “ugly” fruit or vegetables go into processed foods that the consumer never sees. The waste is generated mostly by the consumer instead of the markets.
    That’s what happened with this “entitlement generation” with a throw away

    Liked by 2 people

  28. I think somebdoy already said it best… Eye opening!

    Liked by 2 people

  29. food is food. ugly or pretty, it will end up in our plates🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Great post.Loved it.🙂
    Check out my blog too.Its on technology and its latest developments.🙂🙂
    http://www.technocrazian.wordpress.com

    Liked by 2 people

  31. I buy food on the basis of looks, as I associate good food skin with health. So if I see an apple with skin that is cut or marred I just assume it is on the verge of getting spoiled. No wonder it is so cheap.

    The question for me is: How do I decide which food is actually not spoiled when the only indicator is how the food looks?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think this is a common problem most people run into. Distinguishing between what food is bad – rotten, worm ridden or spoiled – and what food just looks bad – bruised, cut or scraped – is not always easy. I suggest picking the food up and smelling it. This alone can tell you if its rotten on the inside (it’ll feel mushy) or if the damaged spot is only skin-deep. Also, if it doesn’t have a strong smell, it’s almost certainly not spoiled. Finally, I suggest doing a bit of research on the produce you buy most often, as certain fruits and vegetables have specific indicators of when they’re ripe versus when they’ve gone bad. Hope this helps!

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Yeah this does. My mom would always smell food when buying, I guess I forgot about that

        Like

  32. aesthabe says:

    I usually judge fruit/vegetables by the looks! I would think its bad if the outside is ugly.
    But maybe its poor judgement we’ll never know whats actually on the inside until we buy it.

    Check out my blog!
    https://aesthabe.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Enjoyed I never really thought or even noticed that ugly fruit was not displayed with the exception in some markets in the back of the store on a cart.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Michaela says:

    I am guilty of fearing that any produce that doesn’t look ‘perfect’ must be tainted somehow. I fear worms in my apples and mould on my bread. I am working hard to change my attitude to accept fruits and veggies of all shapes and sizes. As a society we are encouraged to fear the different and unusual – we can start embracing the unique in an easy way by starting to eat all the foods, instead of just the pretty ones. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. dogordare says:

    I feel that these foods should be donated for better cause in imerging countries, preventing millions of people from starvation.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Ugly dont necessary meant it is of an inferior quality. Imperfections are what made somebody/something real and authentic.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Great post, working in the catering industry we always thrive for ‘perfect’ veg to get our money’s worth but perhaps this should also start a change in our mentality as well! Completely agree!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Świetny post, krótko mówiąc, jeśli jabłko jest jedzone przez robaka to znaczy, że jest zdrowe i dobre, a te piękne, lśniące i wypolerowane to naszpikowane chemikaliami owoce i warzywa, jestem po szkole gastronomicznej i swojej mentalności żywieniowej nie zmieniam od 40 lat, pozdrawiam

      Liked by 1 person

  38. So there is nothing ugly about the ugly food!

    Liked by 1 person

  39. I have to say, I like a knobbly carrot🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  40. This is the terrible reality of the consumer society we live in. Looks sell products, including food. It’s so sad that all that food, which ends up in garbage, could actually feed the hungry.

    Liked by 2 people

  41. Same fruit the outside doesn’t matter to me and the savings help my pocket book

    Liked by 2 people

  42. I live in Australia and we have a grocery store called Harris Farm that has a specific section called “imperfect fruits” where the fruits and vegetables that are slightly deformed, sold at a cheaper price. I reckon if more stores did similar actions, less food would be wasted and it would overall be more sustainable.

    Liked by 4 people

  43. Amber MV says:

    Oh my goodness yes , buy ugly (adorable, in its own way) food that is edible, because it is edible. Or, walk by any naturally growing apple tree and see a few spots, and know that the world, this way, will be alright.

    Liked by 3 people

  44. kandc12 says:

    I am a produce manager at a “your independent grocer” in Alberta. And I see this every day people literally refuse to buy anything that is not “perfect” and it drives me crazy. Luckily at my store we have a juicing program that. So any apples with nicks or bruises we can just turn into juice. It saves a lot of waste, but still as a culture we need to change what we call “perfect” fruits and veggies. It all tastes the same!!

    Liked by 2 people

  45. spudbudette says:

    Such a great idea. Too much waste. I will think twice when picking out the perfect food. Uniqueness should be embraced not feared.

    Liked by 2 people

  46. shampoofacts says:

    There can be other ways other than hoping for people to buy something they wouldn’t buy in the first place.Why not donate to the less privileged?

    Liked by 1 person

  47. Keri Johnson says:

    I would absolutely buy “ugly” produce. Some of the most amazing produce from our home garden looks nothing like what you see in the stores. It is such a shame that we (as a society) would rather have more pesticides/GMO’s to make our produce look “perfect”.

    Liked by 1 person

  48. yogibanker says:

    Organic is naturally ugly, we saw a whole lot of natural fruits and beg in rural Ibiza last week. It was a reminder of the purity of life! 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  49. Strangely enough, I was talking about this with my family over dinner the other day.. I realised that I both consciously and subconsciously am guilty for shying away from the ugly food! I actually even feel kinda guilty for the ugly food themselves.. is that strange? Well, I vow to do better. Fab article🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  50. Carlos says:

    I know that the food that is ugly has same nutrition value. But the banana pic you posted in your blog I would not eat !!

    Liked by 1 person

  51. Good read. I’ve noticed a bunch of grocery stores that i frequent have been doing lower priced veggies and fruits that aren’t the best looking, I think it’s a great idea!

    Liked by 1 person

  52. salma babani says:

    i think this might be a first world problem, when i moved to Nigeria i noticed that people here also tend to choose “pretty food” over just what is on the verge of being destroyed, you have people buying 10 instead of 15 oranges because “oh give me good ones” they say to the vendors, maybe its human nature to choose physically appealing things in general, of course the poor people just get whatever they can have, yet some still remain hungry while the waste bins of markets are filled with edible food that could have been eaten or bought at a lower price for its “deformity”.

    Liked by 1 person

  53. aeunskin says:

    waste not ; want not

    Liked by 1 person

  54. Reblogged this on VeganVoices by VeganDude and commented:
    “One-third of all global food production goes to waste. Even more staggering, nearly two-thirds of that waste is caused neither by drought, poor refrigeration nor insects, but rather results from the way the food looks. “

    Liked by 1 person

  55. asnambiar1 says:

    looks from outside the food is not really whats present in it and its quality…so dont think everything which is ugly is a waste!!

    Liked by 1 person

  56. Perfect, we must just follow our green call! love this… http://www.instintoverde.com

    Liked by 1 person

  57. naturally_nu says:

    Very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  58. Love it! I always go check for fruit and veggies in the back of my grocery store. Anything ugly gets put on clearance. I am happy to buy the wrinkly pepper or lime with brown spots when I am saving so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  59. tugoffaith says:

    Good for you. I took particular notice of you mentioning cookbooks and magazines. Very good point!

    Liked by 1 person

  60. Idietitianin says:

    Nice to see someone bringing such a topic up!! Thank You…People really need to revisit their conscience before dumping food..For some it is waste..but for the less privileged..its something they wish everyday!! Great Post!!🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  61. Interesting read! I recently saw something similar about this and ever since I’ve stuck to buying ugly produce at the grocery!

    Liked by 1 person

  62. Great article. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  63. The best tasting food comes from. Your own garden or allotment. Not grown to meet supermarket standard but definitely fresher

    Liked by 1 person

  64. chubbysmom says:

    Interesting read. Instead of attacking customers and industry standards you give good examples of accepted ugly food in our daily life. I will think twice next time I am grocery shopping : P

    Liked by 1 person

  65. annecam25 says:

    this was very helpful….thanks^^

    Liked by 1 person

  66. Completely agree with this! Good read!

    Liked by 1 person

  67. Completely unrelated to food i.e veggies and fruits, here in Kerala,India people used to frown at fish that had flies hovering over it. So the fish monger would constantly sprinkle water over the fish to make it look fresh. (google fish market kerala to get an idea of how fish is sold out here). Well guess what, now people buy only fish that has flies hovering over it, because they have realized if its good for the flies, its good for us. Fish that looks fresh is usually treated with ammonia and other chemicals. When you cook it , it looks rubbery and tastes awful. So back to the basics, buy au naturel

    Liked by 1 person

  68. Ugly doesn’t change the nutritional value. Merely the way we view things through imagery brainwashing. In example would you buy a blue banana. Absurdity only because we know they should be yellow.

    Liked by 1 person

  69. As one blogger rightly commented, the ugly fruits/vegetables can be donated to the less privileged by the vendor.

    Liked by 1 person

  70. zozieposie says:

    I think lots would buy mishap food- it’s what would happen in our gardens sometimes after all. I will be happy to show mishaped food on my blog if I have some

    Like

  71. Great article and good. Thank you!

    Like

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