Misunderstanding food labels leads to greater food waste, study finds

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Many consumers throw away ‘expired’ food that may still be good to eat

In an effort to discover why consumers are throwing away food, researchers from Ohio State University set out to uncover trends among food waste habits. 

According to their study, the biggest problem is misunderstanding food labels. The team found that many consumers get stuck on the wording printed on their food and throw things away to avoid eating something potentially expired. 

“People eat a lot less of their refrigerated food than they expect to, and they’re likely throwing out perfectly good food because they misunderstand labels,” said researcher Brian Roe. 

What do the labels mean?

The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing responses from 300 participants in two separate surveys. The answers were meant to highlight what food consumers were buying and what they did with perishable products after a certain amount of time.

“We wanted to understand how people are using the refrigerator and if it is a destination where half-eaten food goes to die,” said Roe. “That’s especially important because much of the advice that consumers hear regarding food waste is to refrigerate (and eat) leftovers, and to ‘shop’ the refrigerator first before ordering out or heading to the store.” 

The study revealed that consumers were overly confident in how much of their groceries they’d eat every week. On average, participants predicted they’d eat over 70 percent of their fruit, but most of the time they only consumed 40 percent of it.

Similarly, survey respondents thought they’d eat nearly 100 percent of the meat they bought for the week, but they actually ate just about half of it. Nearly identical trends emerged with dairy products and vegetables, and experts believe it all stems from confusion over labels on food. 

“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels mean and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” said Roe. 

The researchers also found other trends emerge, including older households wasting less than younger ones. Consumers who frequently cleaned out their refrigerators were also guilty of wasting more. 

The goal of this study was to highlight areas where consumers can be better about minimizing their food waste, but the researchers hope their work will inform legislators so they can step in and help consumers reduce their food waste. 

“Our results suggest that strategies to reduce food waste in the U.S. should include limiting and standardizing the number of phrases used on date labels, and education campaigns to help consumers better understand the physical signs of food safety and quality,” said researcher Megan Davenport. 

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