Don’t Judge a Food By Its Cover: Exploring the Ugly Produce Trend

Down in Orlando, Florida, among Epcot’s various attractions, The Land Pavilion showcases a unique display of mankind’s interaction with planet Earth in terms of agriculture.

bruised pear

Aboard the Living with Land boat ride, park visitors cruise through various greenhouses and “living laboratories” where they can gain a better understanding of where food comes from, as well as what the future holds for the development and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.

Within these laboratories, Epcot’s horticulturists toil and tinker, cross-breed and create crops that stretch the imagination: nine-pound lemons, soilless-grown watermelons that dangle from overhead trestles, and even Mickey Mouse-shaped pumpkins. By placing small, young pumpkins into special molds during their early developmental stages, horticulturists manipulate nature in fascinating ways that seem fitting for Disney or Willy Wonka.

Fruit Mould, a company based in China, makes and sells various molds, primarily to farmers and gardeners. These molds transform fruit and vegetables into hearts, stars, skulls, Buddhas and can even be made special to order with logos and personalized names.

On their website Fruit Mould informs customers that the reshaping or modification of fruits and vegetables does not “diminish the quality or lower the nutritional value” of produce. Moreover, “having your fruits shaped into something out of the ordinary will not only draw more attention, but will also add more value.”

But when it comes to misshapen, twisted, deformed-looking fruits and vegetables, the enthusiasm dissipates.

Abnormal-looking produce can result from several variables: poor pollination, damage to the crop’s embryonic development, or crowded plant beds. The St. Peter Food Co-op explains how “Root vegetables grown in freshly manured fields may grow into strange shapes because their roots are drawn out into all directions by the lure of irregular pockets of manured soil.”

Asymmetrical apples, crooked carrots and irregular radishes have one trait in common: the inability to pass a rigid set of cosmetic standards enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA].

Because this poked and pocked produce is not “aesthetically pleasing,” farmers are unable to sell some of their crops — a daunting reality when faced with the threat of falling crop prices and rising interest rates of farmland. According to Refed, a nonprofit that analyzes food waste to devise solutions, imperfect produce is one of the main contributions of the 10 million tons of food that is discarded each year. This statistic is a startling revelation when considering the millions of people who struggle to afford healthy, natural food.

To ameliorate this problem, a number of sustainability-oriented startups are offering solutions to “ugly” produce that have far-reaching effects on America’s farms, the environment and consumers’ wallets.

Misfits Market, a Philadelphia-based delivery service that sells organic misshapen fruits and vegetables to select east coast states at a discounted rate, is “redefining beauty in produce” in an effort to combat food waste. The organization sources non-GMO produce from partner farms in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and offers two boxes: the $19 Mischief Box that serves 1-2 people for a week, and the $34 Madness Box that serves 4-5 people a week. Customers save up to 50% of what they would normally spend on produce at the grocery store.

They also benefit from the exposure to produce they might have not otherwise encountered. Stat fruit and black Spanish radishes, for example, have surfaced in recent Misfit boxes. Other items include various squashes, broccoli, peppers, potatoes, apples, string beans, Brussel sprouts and leeks. People who had never before eaten potato leek soup are now making potato leek soup.

Just as their pallets are expanding, so are their culinary skills. One excellent feature Misfits Market offers for free on its website is a recipe of the week. For example: a gluten-free beet gnocchi — “slightly crispy on the outside, soft and pillowy on the inside,” dredged in a sage brown butter sauce — makes for an enticing dish.

Pauline Urick, a working mother of two who discovered Misfits Market via Facebook, extrapolates that there is a stigma attached to imperfect produce because “people believe that something that is different on the outside is not good or perfect on the inside. I think that goes for most things in life — including people who view others.”

“Ugly is beautiful.”

Ugly Produce Is Beautiful [UPIB] has interests aligned with Misfits Market. They are a global campaign focused on educating the public about imperfect produce and counteracting food waste. The organization accomplishes this mission by rallying key figures in agriculture: producers, retailers, restaurants and consumers. Looking at the UPIB logo conjures themes of kindergarten: the primary colors, the simple and precise lettering, the tomato’s nurturing presence and the moral at the end of story time — “Ugly is beautiful.”

Sarah Phillips, founder and Co-CEO of UGIB, is not only the author of “The Healthy Oven Baking Book” and “Baking 9-1-1,” but is also a food photographer. Vibrant, appetizing images with titles such as “Artichoke Art” and “Squash Carnival” elicit a response, one that recognizes the beauty in fruits and vegetables.

On the UPIB website, some grim facts are presented:

“Ugly produce is part of our larger American food waste problem, although it occurs worldwide. Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year – from farm to fork – ugly produce and uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.”

Taking into account the additional materials that are wasted — human labor, soil, fertilizers, water — only paints a bleaker reality.

By providing these statistics, UPIB makes it clear why people need to reevaluate their perceptions of imperfect fruits and vegetables. To raise awareness and persuade the public to purchase ugly produce, UPIB offers recipes, tips (“10 Things to Do with Banana Peels”), events and how-to’s.

San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce has been praised in Forbes, the New York Times, Business Insider, Bloomberg Business and the Los Angeles Times. It not only offers customized, discounted fruits and vegetables, but also runs exciting sweepstakes such as their recent “unpearalleled referral program” where one grand prize winner was awarded a chef-catered dinner valued up to $5,000 by farmer, educator and chef Michelle Aronson of Farmbelly.

Imperfect Produce also provides some of the most inventive recipes — carrot cake cookies, persimmon salad, vegan caramelized onion mashed potatoes, creamy confetti coleslaw, charred vegetable soup, chocolate zucchini cake, broccoli stem hummus, pumpkin pie cinnamon buns, butternut squash brownies — on its website to teach people how to put their fruits and vegetables to good use.

One common misconception about imperfect fruits and vegetables is that they lack the same nutritional value and taste present in conventional produce. As Imperfect Produce points out, “The produce we source is rejected by grocery stores purely for cosmetic reasons, meaning that taste and nutrition aren’t affected. Common reasons for produce being classified as ‘ugly’ are: it’s too small, it’s the wrong color, or it’s misshapen.”

big imperfect strawberry
One of our members sent us a picture of this beautiful strawberry.

With strict quality control measures in place, they ensure fresh, delicious and nutritious produce. To offer even more peace of mind, Imperfect Produce assures consumers, “if we don’t eat it, we don’t sell it.”

To add further credibility, NPR’s orchidologist Elizabeth Greenman conducted a study on marred apples that explains how “‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables may pack more nutrition.

In addition to selling imperfect produce at low cost, Hungry Harvest donates another box to those in need. Another noteworthy organization, EndFoodWaste.org, provides a directory (by state and country) for consumers to get in touch with farmers and vendors who sell imperfect produce at reduced cost. Through the Farm to Foodbank Movement, “ugly” produce is recovered or purchased surplus (the produce that is left over after farmers sell to stores) to see that the more than 46 million impoverished Americans receive perfectly healthy fruits and vegetables that would otherwise rot in a landfill because they fail to meet cosmetic standards. Donations are graciously accepted.

Imperfect produce bears witness to a very important edification: don’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes being sensitive also means being sustainable.

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Comments (4)

  • My concern with those marketing “ugly” fruit and vegetables is that they make a profit on items that might otherwise have gone to food banks and soup kitchens.

    • According to the article, the imperfect produce is thrown away – it doesn’t go to anyone.

      I subscribe to Imperfect Produce and a portion of what they collect is donated. If you skip a subscription box, you can directly donate it to a local food bank.

  • In Europe we go by taste and not by the looks… Things look great here but often taste like cardboard… I would rather eat an ugly fruit that has taste than a “ready for a commercial” one that has no substance! Cheers!!!

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