Anyone who has grown up on a fruit or vegetable farm knows that some of the best tasting produce can be among the most deformed and ugly-looking specimens in the harvest basket. This past year, Europe relaxed its rules about shapes and sizes of produce that could be marketed to consumers. The primary goal was to reduce waste in fruits and vegetables that didn’t meet the standards. As a result, one large French supermarket chain launched a clever and funny advertising campaign to announce that they were going to offer—at substantial discounts (30%)—fruit and vegetables that weren’t as pretty as those they normally stocked. They humorously dubbed them “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables.” One of the big selling points to consumers was that, by buying the “ugly,” the supposed waste would be minimized.
The reality, however, is that most misshapen produce is not typically wasted anyway. Smart farmers have always found markets for their less desirable-looking products, whether through canning, juicing or other food processing outlets. But educating consumers’ minds about what makes a good tasting and nutritious piece of fruit is a good thing, and ideally will increase profits for those hard-working farmers who know that looks are not the first indicator of value.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported today that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is going to lead the way to get the word out. Hats off to this effort, even though the claims of waste on rejected produce are perhaps overstated. The Guardian article claims that an estimated 20–40% of produce shipped to retailers in the UK is rejected because of certain standards. The fact that is rejected does not mean the farmers dumped the shipments in the rubbish bin. It most likely went somewhere to feed someone or something (a large percentage of lower-standard fruits and vegetables go to animal feed processors).
But, like retailers, consumers also need to understand that ugly doesn’t mean bad, and, in fact, ugly can mean downright good. The success of the European effort to sell veggie misfits will depend on precisely that change of mind. Just because the supermarket produce buyer puts it on the shelf doesn’t mean that the end-user won’t reject these specimens just as the buyers once did.
The growing popularity of heirloom fruits and vegetables is an encouraging trend, and produce shoppers are learning this lesson. Many older varieties looked nothing like their plastic-looking (and often plastic-tasting) hybridized descendants, which sit on the shelves of grocery stores today. The increased availability of the ancestor strains has shown a lot of savvy foodies that what was once thought to be ugly can now be recognized as very beautiful, and what was once thought to be beautiful may actually be tasteless—or even worse. You might not fully understand this if you have never tasted a grotesquely shaped but lusciously sweet Cherokee Purple tomato fresh off the vine. Take the time to do so and you will begin to comprehend the difference between the good, the bad and the ugly—at least when it comes to fruit.