Healthy Diets Lead to More Food Waste, But You Should Still Eat Your Vegetables

Are healthy diets worse in terms of food waste?

Compost: it's good.
Photography August Muench on Flickr

It’s commonly cited that the U.S wastes about 40 percent of the food supply. In recent years, with a new focus on reducing food waste for environmental and public health reasons, researchers have begun to get ever more granular in their study of exactly how, why, when, where, and what food gets wasted. A new one, this time from the University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, and the USDA, takes a look at how diet is correlated with food waste, and comes up with some interesting conclusions.

The new study relies on publicly available USDA data on the roughly 150,000 tons of food per day that goes to waste. Food waste comes from a variety of sources: spoilage, people being unwilling to purchase items they perceive to be bad or to have gone bad, and from extra food simply getting tossed in the trash (say at a restaurant or cafeteria). It is a massive environmental and infrastructure issue – food take a lot of energy to produce, and it builds up in landfills as methane-emitting waste. And let’s not forgot the most important issue here: there are millions of food-insecure people in our country. It’s a shame!

This is the first study we’ve seen that specifically examines food waste in the context of diet. It found that certain types of food tend to produce different amounts and different types of waste.

  • Fruits and vegetables were found to be the most wasted, at 39 percent of the total.
  • Dairy (17 percent) and meat (14 percent) are the second and third most wasted.
  • Those with healthier diets (defined here as one higher in fruits and vegetables) may contribute more food waste.
  • Further, from the study’s release: “The study also found that healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets, but led to greater waste in irrigation water and pesticides, which are used at higher rates on average for growing fruits and vegetables.”

This is all true, but, as the study’s release makes clear, not the full picture. The majority of cropland in the US is used for feed for animals; when you eat meat, you’re also relying on that cropland. And a previous study found that producing meat is significantly-more energy intensive than growing plants.

Another issue: plant discards from fruits and vegetables can be composted, which encourages the rapid breakdown of that waste into something useful. But most cities do not allow meat and dairy waste to be composted in municipal systems; this is partly to keep away pests, partly because rotten meat can spread bacteria, and partly because rotten meat and dairy smells really bad. (Seriously.)

In other words, nothing is simple and everything is killing the planet. The only solution is to eat ugly produce.

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