Study suggests new market for bent, ugly and wonky produce

Bent, twisted and ugly fruit and vegetables, traditionally binned because they do not meet retailers' cosmetic standards, could have a new market, just released research suggests.

A new study by University of Otago marketing PhD student Annesha Makhal, revealed children are more accepting than adults of suboptimal fruit and vegetables, offering retailers marketing opportunities.

Cosmetic standards are a major reason for almost 45 percent of fruit and vegetables being thrown away globally every year.

"The United Nations has a goal to halve food loss and waste by 2030, which like many other countries, New Zealand has also adopted," she said.

"Meeting this goal means that we need to identify areas where food waste could be avoided. This is where my research comes in."

The study suggests saving "wonky produce" will help cut down food waste.
The study suggests saving "wonky produce" will help cut down food waste. Photo credit: Unsplash

Ninety-seven children, aged between 5 and 11, were provided with a shopping basket and shopping list requiring them to choose two quantities each of a fruit and vegetable, from a large assortment displayed on a table.

Produce that would normally not be sold due to suboptimal shape, colour and size were perceived as positive by the children.

Shape defects imparted a unique appearance which led the children to prefer the suboptimal options.

"I like it, I like how it's bent because I like all sorts of carrots," one 8-year-old boy commented, while an 11-year-old girl preferred the "ugly" carrot because "it's different and it's twisted".

Personifying misshapen fruit led to positive taste inferences, with children choosing fruit because it resembled a "mini phone" and "alien".                                                            

Makhal said many of the children who had eaten ugly produce before could confirm it was perfectly edible and tasted great.

"We found that children find misshaped produce fun and interesting. One of the words used was 'cute' to describe produce with shape defects. 

"This challenges the contemporary good appearance equals good quality norm."

Children were also willing to accept produce with colour defects, and size was only a matter of personal preferences with no clear majority indicating a preference. 

Blemishes, however, were largely considered negative, with the participants associating "bruising", "brown marks", and "scars" to poor taste.

"In general, when looking back at the research that has been done with adults, we find that children are more accepting of ugly produce.

"Specifically, most children were willing to eat produce with shape, size, and colour defects. That means retailers can target produce with such cosmetic defects to children ... and such fruit and vegetables can be saved from the landfills.

"The more consumers we can get to accept ugly produce, the more fruits and vegetables we can save from the landfills, which is a step closer to an environmentally sustainable food supply chain."

Makhal said the study recognised that as young consumers, children can play a vital part in saving "wonky produce" and cutting down food waste.