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How to Stop Wasting Food

Food Waste

Story at-a-glance -

  • 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, which amounts to a waste of more than 20 pounds of food per person, every month
  • U.S. families throw out about 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy
  • Tips included for how to properly store your fresh foods so you actually get the chance to eat them before they spoil
  • In addition to making sure your fridge is kept cold enough -- below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius – a vacuum sealer can greatly extend the shelf-life of produce and other perishable food items

By Dr. Mercola

That old bunch of carrots or pot of soup that sat for too long in your fridge, then ended up in your trash, doesn't seem like much. But when translated over an entire year, and expanded globally, the problem of food waste transforms into one of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, Americans now waste 50 percent more food than they did in the 1970s, which means the problem is getting worse instead of better...1

Americans Waste 20 Pounds of Food, Per Person, Per Month

In a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), it's revealed that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, which amounts to a waste of more than 20 pounds of food per person, every month. This amounts to upwards of $2,275 in annual losses for the average U.S. household of four.2 So this isn't simply a matter of the food itself, but the waste it generates:

  • $165 billion that is essentially "thrown out"
  • 25 percent of freshwater usage, wasted
  • Huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land use, also wasted
  • Rotting food in landfills, which accounts for nearly 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions

The NRDC report also estimates: 3

" saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables."

In all, it's estimated that U.S. families throw out about 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. In the UK, about two-thirds of household food waste is due to food spoiling before it is used, whereas the other one-third is due to cooking and serving too much. This problem isn't only on the consumer level, of course, as significant food waste occurs at every level of the supply chain, including during:

  • Production and farming
  • Post-harvest, handling and storage
  • Processing and packaging
  • Retail and restaurant distribution

Is "Cheap" Food Creating Even More Waste?

The average American wastes 10 times more food than the average consumer in Southeast Asia. NRDC suggested this may be because food is relatively inexpensive, and typically widely available, in the U.S., which makes it seem like it has less value. They reported:4

"Cheap, available food has created behaviors that do not place high value on utilizing what is purchased. As a result, the issue of wasted food is simply not on the radar of many Americans, even those who consider themselves environment- or cost-conscious."

I was really surprised when I learned of this statistic, as it is really a sad testimony as to the wastefulness of the U.S. culture relative to other countries like Asia. I personally waste less than a pound of food per month, almost all due to spoilage and typically from the vegetables I grow in my garden. I can typically fit a week's worth of my trash in a small plastic grocery bag that weighs 1-2 pounds (not including my Amazon shipping boxes, which I put in recycling).

It's true that Americans have a cheaper food supply than most other countries. In 2010, Americans spent just over 9 percent of their disposable income on food (5.5 percent at home and 3.9 percent eating out).5 This is a dramatically lower percentage spent than just decades ago in the early 1960s, when over 17 percent was spent on food, and even more of a "bargain" compared to 1930, when Americans spent over 24 percent of their disposable income to feed their families. When you compare what Americans spend to what people in other countries spend, you'll also notice some great disparities.

As reported in TreeHugger, professor Mark J. Perry stated on his Carpe Diem blog:6

"... compared to other countries, there's no other place on the planet that has cheaper food than the U.S. The 5.5% of disposable income that Americans spend on food at home is less than half the amount of income spent by Germans (11.4%), the French (13.6%), the Italians (14.4%), and less than one-third the amount of income spent by consumers in South Africa (20.1%), Mexico (24.1%), and Turkey (24.5%), which is about what Americans spent DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, and far below what consumers spend in Kenya (45.9%) and Pakistan (45.6%)."

Unfortunately, the "faster, bigger, cheaper" approach to food production that the United States has mastered is unsustainable and contributing to not only excess waste but also the destruction of our planet and your health. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and a number of other bestsellers, said it best:

"Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn't paid at the cash register, it's charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it's charged to your health."

Creating Vacuum Packs is a Great Food-Saving Trick

One of my all-time favorite tricks, which works for most produce, is to create a "vacuum pack" to help protect it from oxygen and airborne microbes that will accelerate its decay. Leave the produce in the bag it came in from the grocery store, place it against your chest and use your arm to squeeze the excess air out of the bag.

Once the air is removed you can seal it with a twist tie and thus minimize exposure to oxygen. This simple technique can easily double or triple the normal shelf life of your vegetables by keeping air away from them. Alternatively, you can use an automatic vacuum sealer, like the FoodSaver available on Amazon, to do this automatically and create an even tighter, airtight seal.

However, I nearly always store my food in quart or pint glass Ball jars. The FoodSaver brand also has a wide-mouth jar sealer attachment, which is ideal for sealing your leftovers, fermented veggies, sauces and other liquids stored in a wide-mouth jar, and can keep your food fresh up to five times longer. I regularly use it for extending the life of my vegetable juice and making my juicing more efficient so I don't have to juice every day.

Other Tips for Keeping Your Perishable Food Items Fresher, Longer

If you're eating healthy, fresh produce and other foods that spoil easily will be a large part of your diet. These are also the foods most likely to be wasted; for instance, more fruits and vegetables are wasted in the U.S. food system than are actually consumed (52% are wasted versus 48% consumed)!7

Of course, wasted food equals wasted resources of all kinds, including the hard-earned money you spend on groceries that never actually reach your plate. So part of being a savvy grocery shopper is knowing how to properly store your fresh foods so you actually get the chance to eat them before they spoil. Simple tips to keep your foods fresher, longer, to avoid food waste, include:

  • Store fresh herbs (washed and sealed in plastic bags) in your freezer. They'll stay fresh for a month and defrost instantly when you want to use them for cooking.
  • Make limp celery, carrots and radishes crunchy again by placing them in a bowl of ice water with a slice of raw potato.
  • Spread butter on the cut side of hard cheeses to keep them from drying out in the fridge.
  • Put rice in your salt shaker to absorb condensation and keep salt from hardening.
  • Store your butter in the freezer; it will keep fresh for up to six months. But for the butter you are using consider leaving it out of the fridge. I leave my butter on the counter so it stays more spreadable. I go through about a pound a week so spoilage is not an issue, especially since it is raw butter.
  • Combine fruit into a fruit salad to snack on, or freeze it for later use in smoothies
  • Veggies like green beans, broccoli and chard can be cooked halfway, then rinsed in cold water to stop the cooking, drained and packed in freezer-safe bags for later use

Proper Food Storage is Also Crucial

You'll want to make sure your fridge is kept cold enough -- below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius. This will ensure food safety. Also leave enough space in your fridge for cold air to circulate. If your refrigerator is too tightly packed, your food will spoil faster. Next, you'll want to properly store each individual food:

  • To best preserve beets, remove the green tops and refrigerate the beets and the greens in separate plastic bags
  • Corn should be refrigerated while still in the husk to stay fresh the longest.
  • Citrus fruits can last up to two weeks right on the counter
  • Garlic and onions need to be stored in a dark, cool pantry, where they will stay fresh for up to four months
  • Berries keep the best when refrigerated unwashed in their original container
  • Keep fresh herbs in an airtight container wrapped in a moistened paper towel; they'll maintain their freshness for up to 10 days in your fridge (or you can use the freezer trick mentioned earlier). You can also puree the herbs with olive oil and salt to make a pesto-like sauce that will last for a week in your fridge or six months in your freezer. Herbs like rosemary and sage can also be washed then hung upside down to dry; when dried, crumble the leaves into a jar for later use
  • The life of leafy greens can be extended by as much as three extra days if you don't wash them before putting them in your fridge
  • Bunches of asparagus should be stored upright in the refrigerator in a plastic bag in an inch of water, or with a damp towel wrapped around the base

A Reminder About Expiration Dates...

If you automatically throw a food away once it's past its expiration date, you're probably wasting food unnecessarily. Unbeknownst to many, "best by" dates on many food packages are typically a measure of peak quality, not an indication of food safety. Typically, it is still safe to eat a food after the "best by" or "best before" date (the exception is infant formula, which has safety-based "use by" dates).

Keep in mind, too, that surface imperfections -- like small "bruises" on fruits, a minute speck of mold on a piece of cheese, or a bit of wilting -- are typically not going to make you sick. They can be cut off and the food will still be fine to eat. It is always best to avoid rotting fruit or vegetables, as the decay process will liberate methanol, which is a brain neurotoxin.