Food Waste and the Fresh/Natural Fixation — Food Science in the News

For this edition of Food Science in the News, we look at one example where the fresh/natural fixation is creating food waste, and one example where the super-fruit fixation is reducing it.

There’s a delicate balance between wanting to reduce food waste, and wanting fresh, whole food. How do you keep food in acceptable condition when artificial ingredients are frowned upon, and even the oldest, most basic preservative (plain ol’ table salt) is on many Diet-Don’t lists?

First, a food waste primer

  • Approximately 40% of the annual food supply in the US becomes food waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) [1]
  • The US Department of Agriculture defines food waste as “the edible amount of food, post-harvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason”; this includes losses that occur due to spoilage, plate waste by consumers, food discarded by retailers for not meeting color/appearance standards, and even the natural losses from cooking (think of the food on the sides of the pot or mixing bowl) [2]
  • The top three food groups in terms of food loss at the retail and consumer level are dairy products, vegetables, and grain products [3]

When innovation leads to MORE food waste

The consumer has a louder voice now than during any time in history. Thanks to factors such as (but not limited to) social media, food bloggers, food trucks, and the uptick in online supplement sales, consumers have more choices, and more power. With this power, one fad or concern becomes a business mandate faster than you can say, “General Mills Gluten Free Cheerios”. Not all of the consumer-driven formulation changes are bad or scientifically-unfounded, but every re-formulation brings consequences.

Case-in-Point: Nestle and Hershey move toward simpler ingredients (and shorter shelf life)

Hershey Co and Nestle USA have announced plans to transition to ingredients that are easier to understand, according to Food Business News. While this plays into one of the trends that vexes me most, the “Don’t eat it if you can’t pronounce it” trend, I respect both companies for trying to make their confections better. Like many consumers , I try to limit the amount of artificial ingredients I put in my body. HOWEVER, like many food scientists, I’ve struggled with the challenge of developing an “artificial-ingredient free” product that lasts long enough to make it through the supply-chain to the consumer. Unlike chocolate candy bars, my product does not fly off the shelves [Read: Why Greenberry Shakeology is like Neville Longbottom].

By the time the consumer has received his or her order, half of the product’s one-year shelf life is gone. Since we only use natural flavors, there are times the flavor itself is half-way through its own one-year shelf-life before it’s even arrived at our manufacturing plant (though some flavor houses are over-cautious with their shelf-life claims). As a result, by committing to non-artificial ingredients and by relying on vitamins and salt alone to preserve our finished product, we run the risk that the consumer returns or tosses the product because it’s past at its optimal taste window. Of course, we evaluate this risk carefully through shelf-life and stability studies (as detailed here), but even due-diligence can’t completely remove all risk.

With their promises to remove artificial flavors and colors, Nestle USA and Hershey are going to face these same hurdles. In fact the challenges they face with their non-artificial commitments may be even worse since chocolate is so sensitive to temperature abuse during shipping and handling. The average consumer sees the white spots of chocolate bloom as mold, and won’t think twice before tossing the product. With other food companies making similar simple-ingredient pledges, I worry about the effects of these reformulations on the food waste dilemma.


When innovation leads to LESS food waste

Three areas of Food Waste Reduction innovation are (1) reducing waste before it occurs, (2) recovering food that would become waste, and (3) recycling/re-purposing food waste.

The first and second approaches seem the most feasible, as demonstrated by Buzzfeed’s article, “34 Ways to Waste Less Food”. Additionally, apps like StillTasty and FoodKeeper aim to provide guidance on when a food is past the point of being edible, and help consumers use food strategically before it spoils.  Yet perhaps the greatest opportunities lie with approach number three: with the increasing focus on “clean label friendly” ingredients, food science research is exploring ways to re-purpose food waste.

Case-in-Point: A new destiny for mango seeds

Mango seeds are a by-product of mango harvesting, and are generally considered agroindustrial waste. However, mango seeds are a potential replacement for cocoa butter, according to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (and translated into plain English in Confectionery News). This replacement offers several benefits. First of all, cocoa butter is used in both chocolate and pharmaceutical applications, but it’s expensive. Mango seeds are an inexpensive source since they’re normally discarded. Finally, mango butter and cocoa butter have similar fatty acid profiles, and have comparable properties in an emulsion gel form, according to this study. (Plus, every one can pronounce “mango butter”!)


There is nothing wrong with striving to limit consumption of artificial ingredients, and it’s encouraging when  food companies pay attention to their consumers’ interests and appetites. But there are consequences to every action, and as a food scientist I would like to see more food companies approaching this issue with honesty, not chemophobia. I would like to see food companies stand up and say, “We hear you, but in this case we can’t stop using ingredient X because…”

Embrace the science.


– – – Green-Eyed Guide

References Cited:

[1] NRDC. 2012. Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council Issue Paper, IP:12-06-B. (READ THE WHOLE PAPER FOR FREE)

[2] Golan, E., Buzby, J.C. 2015. Innovating to Meet the Challenges of Food Waste. Food Technology 69(1) January: 20-25.

[3] Buzby, J.C., Wells, H.F. and Hyman, J. 2014. The estimated amount, value, and calories of postharvest food losses at the retail and consumer levels in the United States. EIB-121, Feb. Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Additional Resources and Recommended Reading:

Food Waste – A Story of Excess (YouTube – Visually)

There’s A New App That Wants To Fix America’s Food Waste Problem (Buzzfeed) 

FoodKeeper App Watch-outs: USDA FoodKeeper app intended to fight food waste, but it may just cause confusion



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