We look for attractive people to mate with, cute animals to bring home and nice clothes to wear. So is it any wonder we judge good-looking food to be tastier? This behavior may seem harmless, but it often means that cosmetically challenged fruits and vegetables end up rotting on the ground ― even though they’re perfectly edible.
Each year we waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for human consumption worldwide. In the fruits and vegetables category, almost half of what’s produced is wasted. That’s a billion bags of potatoes, 3.7 trillion apples ― the list goes on. In industrialized countries alone, the cost amounts to billions of dollars. That’s a very high price for being superficial.
Movements to bring ugly fruits and vegetables to grocery stores and cut back on food waste have already begun in Europe and elsewhere, and companies like Tesco in the U.K. have started to offer odd-looking produce at lower prices.
Is there actually any valid reason to avoid buying ugly fruit? Could anything possibly explain this strange behavior?
Let’s face it, there’s an aesthetic element to everything
Our preference for prettiness is a cognitive bias that reaches into every area of our lives. We assume beautiful people to be more intelligent, honest and successful than their less conventionally attractive peers, according to a host of studies. So it’s no surprise that we also prefer food that meets some kind of aesthetic standard.
“Several studies have shown that how foods are presented can influence our liking for them,” said Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
In a 2014 study in the journal Appetite, Zellner worked with the Culinary Institute of America to serve study participants two meals prepared by top chefs. The meals were exactly the same in every way but one: the visual presentation. People said they liked the meal better and even found it tastier when it was plated attractively.
In other words, the study confirmed what folks have been saying for years: The first taste is always with the eyes.
“We prefer beautiful things,” Zellner said. “But it’s not always clear why.”
And this is sad, because some fruits are just naturally ugly. A shiny red strawberry provokes a certain desire in us that we don't get from the sight of a giant celeriac covered with roots and fibers. For reasons not yet entirely understood, our brains are wired to find certain sights beautiful and others unattractive.
Interestingly, one area of the brain seems to be in charge of making that call. Studies have found that whether you're looking at beautiful art or something terribly gross, a brain area called the anterior insular becomes activated. This finding has led scientists to suggest that aesthetic processing is simply your brain's way of trying to assess the value of an object -- to evaluate whether the thing you're looking at is good for you or bad for you.
But are ugly fruits actually bad for us?
Over the millennia, our senses of smell and taste have evolved to like sweetness, because it's a sign of calorie-rich food. Similarly, we've evolved to dislike bitterness or sourness, which could be signs of poisonous or spoiled food.
Our vision also plays a part in how we pick our meals. Color so strongly affects our ability to identify a food that it's possible to trick wine connoisseurs into thinking white wine is red, just by adding some red dye. Color can fool you into thinking green-colored vanilla ice cream is mint flavor and brown-colored vanilla is chocolate.
Is there any possibility that our brains are trying to keep us away from misshapen fruits because there’s some danger involved?
“There are three major causes for deformities in fruits and vegetables,” said Marvin Pritts, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University.
The first is inadequate pollination: The fruit doesn't get fully pollinated, so we’ll see deformities around the seeds. Another possible reason for deformity is frost damage, which might kill some parts of the flower but not the whole thing -- so the fruit will go ahead and develop, but it probably won't be winning any beauty pageants. A third possible cause is that insects fed on parts of the young fruit and made it grow into an asymmetrical shape. There are also less common causes such as plant viruses, which are not transmissible to humans, or mineral deficiencies in the soil, which can be bad news for plants but don't really have an effect on us.
“None of those would cause any health problems for people,” Pritts said.
In other words, deformed fruits are not mutant oddities with plant cancer. The worst-case scenario with fruit is that you might eat something that was grown in an environment that contained radioactive material. But even so, you’d have to eat a lot of that fruit in order for it to be a problem, said Timothy Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina. And more to the point, there's no way to tell just by the shape of a piece of fruit whether it's been exposed to radioactive material.
Given that misshapen fruits and vegetables can hardly harm us like poisonous foods do, it’s highly unlikely that our aversion to odd-looking produce is an evolutionary adaptation, Zellner said.
Instead, our dislike for ugly fruits is probably something we learn.
“A baby is not born preferring a perfect peach,” Zellner said. “We learn through experience what a typical fruit looks like.”
What’s learned can be unlearned
What does a typical fruit even look like? When we think about fruit, most of us probably picture the stuff we see at the supermarket. But the fruit sold in stores is often selected because it meets certain visual criteria set by retailers.
Our preference for fruit that looks a certain way, unlike our preference for sweetness, doesn't seem hard-wired into our brains. Once people are reminded that fruit doesn't have to be round or symmetrical to be delicious and safe to eat, their perceptions may change. That, coupled with a decision to be socially and environmentally responsible, may be why ugly fruits and vegetables are starting to become more visible.
In Europe, Australia and Canada, stores have already begun to take action against food waste by selling unattractive fruits and vegetables at reduced prices. And there are various social media campaigns underway to change our beliefs about ugly fruits. The end of fruit discrimination may be near.
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Language in the petition embedded in this entry has been updated to reflect Walmart’s recent efforts to sell some “ugly” produce in the U.S.