The Ugly Produce Trend Is More Complicated Than It Seems

updated May 24, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that our obsession with pretty things extends all the way to produce. Bruised but still edible watermelons, twisted carrots, conjoined mushrooms and non-triangular strawberries often languish in warehouses as surplus while their more handsome counterparts are found on the shelves of your local supermarket. In fact, The Guardian has estimated that over half of U.S. produce is thrown away due to a need for perfect-looking produce.

Some companies have stepped in to change the system, positing new ways to save the surplus, but it turns out that where all those ugly vegetables and fruits are going is a matter of national contention.

The Twitter Thread That Sparked Discussion

Recently, the fate of all this apparently-wasted produce led to a discussion on Twitter. Harvard graduate and Twitter user @girlziplocked tweeted a question, “What’s a dirty secret that everybody in your industry knows about but anyone outside of your line of work would be scandalized to hear?”

After a complex discussion started by a pesticide maker on the massive amounts of food America wastes, crop scientist and ex-farmworker Dr. Sarah Taber added her own take on the situation in a now-viral thread that covers everything from food distribution to how some well-intentioned consumers are making the problem worse.

“A lot of ‘ugly’ food won’t survive distribution [because] weird shapes makes it prone to getting smushed, bruised, start to rot, and make everything else in the box/crate rot,” said Dr. Sarah Taber on Twitter, in a post that has more than 6,700 retweets and 14,000+ likes. “Broken skin does the same thing.”

“Most ‘ugly’ produce gets turned into soups, sauces, salsa, jam, ice cream, etc. You think that stuff gets made from the pretty fruit & veggies?! Jeebus, think about it for a minute,” Taber said. While that might be true for a lot of bigger food manufacturers, anecdotal evidence from one small business owner seems to refute that.

“It’s possible ugly produce is being processed for things like sauces and salsa for industrial scale producers, but I know for small batch producers like us, it’s just not that easy to get ugly produce even if we wanted to,” says Ken Huynh, founder of Brooklyn-based Saucey Sauce Co.

Where Was Ugly Produce Going Before It Became Trendy?

So where is this ugly produce going? Not the trash, that’s for sure — at least, not immediately. Ugly-produce businesses like Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, and Food Maven have entered the market with a guarantee to “save” and deliver ugly produce right to customer’s doors. And business-minded folk sure believe in the strategy: food-waste startups have raised over $125 million in investments in 2018 alone.

“The food system is a hot mess but using ugly produce is one thing it’s actually really good at. Using every single part of what’s grown, if there’s any possible way to sell it,” Taber said.

It’s true: a lot of talk about ugly-food waste overgeneralizes the unique issues the industry faces. It also seem to gloss over where most of the ugly fruit was going before businesses like Imperfect Produce made it cool.

For instance, charities regularly welcome food of all shapes and sizes, like nonprofit organization Feeding America, who welcomes a substantial amount of “unsellable” produce from growers, retailers and food processors. “In 2016, the group expected to receive more than 2.6 billion pounds from grocery stores, growers and other sources” to its more than 200 food banks across the U.S., according to a CNBC report. In 2018, after the ugly-fruit movement reallocated those mammoth sweet potatoes and bitter-pit apples not sent to the juicer, the amount of food Feeding America received dropped to 1.4 billion pounds, according to their 2018 annual report. A lot of that produce is going to for-profit companies — who do donate their excess as well, but well after charities would gotten in the first place.

“As someone who works in produce, this whole “ugly fruit” movement is actually kind of enraging because it’s completely disconnected from what really happens in the supply chain,” Taber said in another one of the tweets in her thread.

So what is there to do? Make steps in your own life to reduce waste, don’t overbuy, and consider the supply chain of your fresh food. More recently, The Guardian shared research that suggests Americans waste 150,000 tons of food each day, and furthermore, people with healthy diets rich in produce are the most wasteful with their fruits and vegetables.

And that’s the pretty stuff.