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Ep. 74 – Food Waste

After watching a cooking show, Dr. Chet decided to look into out food waste in the U.S. This show featured chefs using more of the meat, produce, and leftover foods to make gourmet dishes instead of throwing them in the garbage. Dr. Chet Zelasko looks into food waste on this edition of Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is a joint production with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Nutrition. Exercise. Diet. Supplementation. If there’s something new, I look at the science behind it, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

My wife and I really like watching cooking shows and competitions. We’re not really partakers of fancy cuisine but we can get ideas about what we can do to enhance the flavors of the foods we do eat. We recently watched a show that focused on chefs using the parts of animals that are not featured in main dishes, using more of the produce we eat, and actually using leftovers. The objective is to reduce the food waste that ends up in landfills. It was fascinating what they created with carrot tops and stale hot dog buns.

See if this scenario sounds familiar. Whomever does the cooking for your household decides it would be great to have a salad for dinner. Greens. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Whatever other produce they would put into a salad. But they don’t quite use it all so there is some of each left. “This would make a great salad to take to work tomorrow.” Into the refrigerator it goes. Except that tomorrow never comes—at least if your household is like mine is. From bright greens into some kind of soupy looking mess in a matter of a week or two. A little bit of food is wasted and we’ve lost a little money in the process. It wasn’t intentional but it happens all too often.

Actually, it happens a lot. Food is wasted so much that it’s now a priority at the USDA and the EPA. food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31% food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. But Feeding America has recently updated those estimates to 38% of all the food is wasted with a cost of over $473 billion worth of food every year. Even if the figures were calculated differently, that’s still a lot of waste. This is wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills.

We let a lot of food wilt or go sour in our refrigerators. That’s one issue. We also toss out items when they pass their sell-by dates — even though the food is still safe to consume. Doesn’t seem like a big deal? With 330 million people in the country, that works out to be just over 400 pounds of food per person per year. It is a significant problem. But the food we waste from home is just the tip of the iceberg.

On farms, there's also a lot of wasted food generated. As incredible as it sounds, when food is not quite up to cosmetic standards, it isn't harvested. It’s not good looking enough for us to buy at the grocery. The background information I read didn’t say whether this is a problem with organic produce. If you buy organic, you’re used to food looking smaller with spots and blemishes. We, as consumers, would never consider buying it from conventionally grown produce in the produce department of our local chain. The food is left to rot in the fields. At least it can become natural compost.

Produce that is picked also ends up in landfills if it is determined that it won't stay fresh long enough to be shipped across the country. That 400 pounds of food has risen from about $1500 per family per year up to $1800 per year. But that’s only part of the problem.

Food waste is a contributor to methane in landfills. We spend so much time worrying about the methane that comes from raising animals—which is a more significant problem that current car emissions—that we don’t consider the raw materials for methane gas production is also produce we do and do not eat. Yes—that’s correct. We are also a contributor to methane when it exits out bodies. Solid waste has to be treated and when it is, it creates methane in the process.

 In conjunction with this effort, there are also things we can do. Buy less and buy only enough is one approach. When cooking for Paula and I, there never seems to be a “just enough” section. Everything is packaged so there is too much or too few to make a meal. We could all stand to use leftovers more effectively.

 The first tip to reduce the amount of food waste is to understand the expiration date that’s on just about everything you buy in a sealed package. What it really means is “Best When Used By.” This is not to be confused with the “sell by” date that you find on meats and produce. Unless it’s frozen, meat may spoil very near to its expiration date. If I find a great reduced price, I buy the meat and either cook it that day or freeze it as soon as I get home.

In reading an article in the NPR column the Salt, one tip about eggs stood out. We use eggs at a rate where they never get close to the expiration date. A couple of things. One, never put eggs in the door of the fridge in the egg tray. The door is subject to the most changes in temperature and that can reduce the time they will be good. The second was interesting to me. The expert quoted in the article said that if the raw eggs sink to the bottom of the water, they are still good regardless of the expiration date. If they float, throw them out. Why? Well, the eggs shells are a semi permeable membrane. That means while it seems solid, the eggshells can actually let air in. Air can lead to bacterial growth and so, when they float, too much air has been let in.

Another tip is related to vegetables. When they get wilted, we tend to throw them away. You have two options. First, put the greens in cold water for an hour or two. It’s amazing what will happen to lettuces and other greens. It’s almost like they are fresh. The other thing is to use the greens in cooking.

Here’s something I’ve also tried; Frozen vegetables can have similar nutrient profile to fresh BUT they can accumulate water on the inside of the plastic bag. I’ve had green beans that I didn’t know were green beans because so much ice was in the bag. I rinsed off the ice—which is actually the water from the produce—and placed the beans in cold water for a few hours. The re-hydrated and were crisp. While I was using them in cooking, they were tasty raw if I wanted to use them that way. It may not work for every vegetable but it can certainly reduce some waste.

One final thing regarding cooked leftovers. Everyone has an opinion. Some say no more than two days—those would be the experts. But that isn’t realistic—especially for stews and soups. If you keep them in the coldest part your fridge, you can extend that to a week. The one thing you should do is bring the food to a boil again. In some restaurants, they leave highly acidic foods like tomato sauces on the stove in pots overnight. As long as they are brought to a boil, the food is safe. However, you and I should be prudent. Keep leftovers as cold as possible and make sure it gets hot enough to kill any bacteria that might have taken refuge. One thing for sure: if you can see something growing, toss it.

We can reduce food waste and save some money in the process if we adjust the way we buy and treat food. It’s just a matter of adjusting the norm we’ve come to expect. There is no reason to toss food that has nutrients just because it doesn’t look perfect. After all, who of us could say that our bodies are perfect? Look are deceiving. Be smart about it. We can all make our body and the planet a little bit healthier in the process. That’s it for this edition of Straight Talk on Health. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.


NPR. The Salt. 9/16/2015 – Food Waste

NPR. The Salt. 9/23/2015 – Don’t Throw That Out.

NPR. The Salt. 12/21/2022 – Reducing Food Waste


Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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