The dirty secret behind the perfect fruits and vegetables at your grocery store

Well-presented, shiny and uniformly sized apples, carrots and other fruits and vegetables are what we’ve come to expect in our local grocery store.  

But it’s a perfection that does not always reflect the produce being grown on farms across the U.S., says Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Food Tank.

“Food grows in the soil and is dirty and comes in all shapes and sizes, yet we’ve been trained to believe that everything is pristine and perfect. It’s part of our culture now. The grocery aisles tell our eyes one thing and we don’t realize that there is nothing bad about misshapen or imperfect-looking food.

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Top secrets from America's biggest grocery stores
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Top secrets from America's biggest grocery stores

Competitor coupons at Publix

Did you see a coupon from a competitor instead of Publix? Bring that coupon with you! Publix posts a list of competitors at each store, allowing you to bring in a coupon you saw elsewhere and get that same deal right at Publix.

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Double coupon policy at Wegmans

Speaking of coupons, Wegmans offers a stellar deal with their double coupon policy. If you saw a coupon from a manufacturer that was less than $0.99 in value, Wegmans will not only give you that coupon but will also reward you with another $0.99 off. If the price is above $1, they will still give you the coupon’s face-value deal. Don't miss these 19 shopping tricks all frugal shoppers use.

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Return policy at Trader Joe's

Hated the recent flavor of Joe Joes? Just return them! That’s right, even after trying something, you can actually return it if you found it unbearable. Trader Joe’s will happily take it back and give you a refund.

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Combos Locos deals at H-E-B

Do you get coupons for H-E-B? If not, well, you should. H-E-B offers a coupon deal called Combos Locos where, when buying two items together, you get discounted prices. For example, a deal could include a bag of salad with a free bottle of dressing! Keep an eye out for deals on their website. Here are more sneaky ways to find great deals online.

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Bargain bins at Aldi

Nope, these bargain bins actually aren’t a rip off (like some bargain bins turn out to be). You are going to want to take advantage of the incredible deals at Aldi’s bargain bin because the low prices will actually knock your socks off.

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B1G1 and B2G3 sales at Harris Teeter

Buy-one-get-one deals, or even buy-two-get-three deals, are always a draw for people trying to buy bulk at a grocery store, But what make’s Harris Teeter special is the secret behind those deals. Instead of offering one item full price and another completely free, the items just ring up as half off. So if you only need one pound of meat and don’t have room in your freezer for another, that meat will still ring up as 50 percent off! Plus, try making these healthy food swaps that can actually save you money.

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Fuel Saver + Perks program at Hy-Vee

Loved the fuel saver program through Hy-Vee? Well, their new-and-improved program is going to have you jumping out of your seat. With this new membership, you can save big using digital deals and coupons target specifically for your shopping list, receive surprise savings, and even get the chance to win rewards! Some of those include kitchen makeovers, vacation packages and even a new car.

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The back of the store at Costco

That’s right—the back of the store is where you’re going to find all of the deals. By working your way forward, you are finding the best bang for your buck. Make sure to walk through “center court” (the savings aisles in the center of the store) and to avoid the front at all costs. The front is known as “action alley” and will rarely give you the type of deals that you crave. Check out these money-saving things you can do at Costco without a membership.

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The jobs at WinCo

Not only are WinCo deals even cheaper than Walmart most of the time, they also offer incredible employee benefits. Like being a part-owner of the store, for example. If you work at WinCo for over 500 hours in the first six months and 1,000 hours in a year, you are eligible for the Employee Stock Ownership program. They also offer incredible benefits including retirement savings and insurance.

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The app from Whole Foods

Whole Foods may sit more on the expensive side, but their app can actually help you save those dollar bills. It’s completely free and loaded with coupons and current deals, giving you a leg up on what to grab in the grocery store.

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Free Item Fridays at Fry's and Kroger

Because Fry’s is a Kroger brand, these two offer the same incredible deal every week—free item Fridays! Find out what you can get for free by downloading the coupon the day before heading to the grocery store.

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Meal deals at Winn Dixie

Every week Winn Dixie offers meal deals where they hand you not one, not two, but three items for free. The meal deal typically comes with a specifically chosen entree. Once you get the entree, you can get the chosen sides (typically a carbohydrate, a vegetable, and a dessert) for free.

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Tuesdays at Target

You may not realize it, but most department stores work off a markdown schedule in certain departments each day of the week. Although every store is different, shopping at Target’s Market (the grocery part of the store) is best for savings on Tuesday. However, there is no harm in asking a sales associate when your local Target’s specific markdown schedule is. Here are more sneaky ways to save money at Target.

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Super Coupons at ShopRite

If you still love to get coupons mailed to your home, then you better be digging for those ShopRite super coupons. These coupons will offer you deals you probably couldn’t even dream about and will make your wallet sing songs of praise. You can also check out a lot of their other coupon deals online at their Digital Coupon Center.

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The MVP kiosk at Food Lion

After signing up for the MVP Program at Food Lion, you’ll want to take advantage of their kiosk ASAP. Simply scan your MVP card when you’re in the store to see what deals are going on for that day, and even a set of personalized coupons based on your recent purchases. But be on the lookout for these 32 retail scams that trick you into spending more.

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SimpleNutrition tags at Albertsons

Just like their Everyday Low Prices and Club Card Savings, Albertsons offers deals on their healthy products by using their SimpleNutrition tags. So instead of ignoring those healthier foods because of the prices, scout Albertsons for these tags to save big and eat healthily.

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Free item codes at Meijer

Every now and then, Meijer will post codes on their Facebook and Twitter for mPerk members to get free items. They offer all sorts of items for free, and if you follow them on social media, you’ll always come across some incredible deals. Make sure you memorize the best times to buy cheap finds throughout the year.

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Cash back at Sam's Club

That’s right—they just hand it to you! For every $500 you spend, you get $10 back. That may not seem like a lot, but if you’re a faithful Sam’s Club shopper, that can seriously add up as the year progresses. Don't miss these other surprisingly simple ways to save big at the supermarket.

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SavingStar at Stop & Shop

If you have a Stop & Shop card (or a Giant card, since they are owned by the same company) you can actually earn cash back when using some of the offers. Just click the offers you want to use on the app.

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The price match policy at Walmart

Saw a cheaper price somewhere else? Bring those ads with you to Walmart! You can get the cheaper deal by showing the associate that pricing, who can then walk you through a process to get that same deal right at the store. Wherever you shop, just make sure you avoid these 50 supermarket tricks you still fall for.

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And many of us associate aesthetics with eating pleasure. “People think food that looks perfect tastes perfect, but that’s not the case. Ugly can be tasty and nutritious,” Nierenberg says.

It all started with the spread of refrigeration technology in the 1980s that enabled fresh fruits and vegetables to be kept chilled soon after being harvested all the way through to the grocery aisle. The ability to preserve “perfect-looking” produce over longer distances gave retailers the option to source fresh produce from further afield and so be more selective about what they would take, enabling them to set increasingly stringent quality standards.

“The result is that if you go to a grocery store in the U.S. today, you see aisles of apples all the same shape and color. It teaches kids that this is what fruit and vegetables are meant to look like,” says Evan Lutz, co-founder of the food waste company Hungry Harvest.

That culture is being reinforced by social media and the focus on immaculate, Instagram- and Pinterest-worthy meals, says Andrea Spacht, a food specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

The downside to this desire for perfect fruits and vegetables is mountains of food waste.

A study in Minnesota found that up to 20 percent of most fruit and vegetable crops were too large, too small or otherwise too cosmetically compromised to meet the standards set by retail buyers, with some growers reporting losses up to 30 percent or higher. Another study in North Carolina found 42 percent of crops were left unharvested, the majority of which did not meet appearance quality standards set by buyers.

Farmers have also said they have been forced to leave crops unharvested because the prices offered by buyers for lower-quality fruit and vegetables is too low to cover the costs of harvesting, including transport and labor.

“If the price being offered by the market is too low, then sometimes the produce just sits unharvested in the field,” says Sam Thorp, who runs the fruit and vegetable farm Spade & Plow in San Martin, California. 

“Retailers have realized that if fresh produce looks a certain way, it will sell better. Therefore, knowing what they are going to get from farmers is important to them, hence why they set those quality standards,” he adds.

Thorp has seen such waste firsthand, having worked on a number of farms. But after setting up his own farm business with his father, Mike, and brother Nick in 2015, they have managed to cut waste by selling not just to wholesale buyers but directly to customers.

Just this past month, a period of cold weather left the Thorps with a harvest full of blistered artichokes that they could not sell to wholesale buyers. But the local restaurants the farm sells to were more than happy to buy the artichokes, as were the farm’s veg box customers and those they sell to at farmers markets. 

They might not look perfect, but the blemished artichokes taste just fine, says Thorp: “They actually taste even better as they’re a little bit sweeter and nuttier.”

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18 kitchen gadgets to keep your produce fresh
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18 kitchen gadgets to keep your produce fresh

1. Silicone food savers

Ever found yourself using half of a fruit or veggie, only to have it go old in a day? These food savers are the solution to keeping half-used fruits and veggies fresh for longer. 

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2. Herb Savors

Triple the life of your fresh herbs with these BPA-free containers that are designed to fit easily into the door of your fridge. They’re designed to let the herbs breathe just enough to keep them crisp and fresh.

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3. Reusable food storage bags

Ditch those plastic baggies for these BPA-free, self-sealing and airtight reusable bags. They’re secure enough to store liquids, and durable enough to go through the dishwasher or even for sous vide cooking.

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4. Reusable Bee’s Wrap

This organic cotton wrap is made with beeswax, tree resin and organic jojoba oil. It’s is a safe alternative to plastic wrap for food storage. Use it to wrap cheese, half fruits and veggies, crusty bread, a sandwich or even cover a bowl or pie dish. 

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5. These produce storage savers

These airtight containers ventilate your produce and the bottom tray of the containers keeps moisture away from your produce to reduce rot. 

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6. Cloth storage bags for fresh veggies

Say goodbye to wilted veggies and rotted fruits. These 100 percent organic cotton bags protect your produce from the elements and keep them fresh for longer than you thought possible. Simply dampen the bags, fill them with your produce, and store in the fridge. If the bags get dry, simply spritz them again. 

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7. Silicone food storage bags

Nothing sounds more appetizing than silicone food storage bags, right? Despite their no-frills name, these reusable bags are a sustainable alternative to your Ziplocs. They’re secure enough to store liquids, and practical enough that you can toss them into the dishwasher between uses

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8. Beer savers

Say goodbye to flat beer. These beer savers will keep your opened beer fresh until the next time you’re ready for a (half) cold one.

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9. 4-in-1 jar kit for spiralizing, juicing, grating and storing

Perfect for meal prep, with this jar kit you can spiralize, juice, and grate your fresh veggies so that when you’re ready to cook, your ingredients are ready to use.

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10. Avocado hugger

If you eat your fair share of avocados, you’ve probably encountered the issue of storing half an avocado for later. This avocado hugger will keep it fresher for longer. 

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11. Veggie life extenders for your fridge crisper

These foam savers can be trimmed to fit any drawer size. They allow air to circulate throughout the draws to keep your produce oxygenated and riper for longer.

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18. Pie box

Protect your pies from the elements (and straying hands) by storing it in a cute and durable pie box. Not only will it keep the pie fresher for longer, but you can get it with a leather strap so you can make transporting your baked goodies even easier

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Making consumers realize that ugly fruit and vegetables still taste good and are fine to eat could help significantly cut food waste, says Nierenberg. And that message doesn’t only have to come from farmers.

Spacht says there are positive signs out there of our perfection culture being challenged with TV shows such as A&E’s “Scraps,” which features chef Joel Gamoran making beautiful food with an eye toward preventing waste.

There are also a number of companies that claim to be helping reduce food waste by selling excess produce, including ugly fruit and vegetables, to consumers via doorstep delivery programs. One of those is Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest, which buys surplus food ― including fruit and vegetables that don’t meet quality standards ― from growers and wholesalers, and sells it to consumers via box subscriptions.

Critics have argued that companies like Hungry Harvest are just creating a premium market for food that would otherwise be sold for food processing or given to food banks ― and not wasted.

But Lutz told HuffPost that Hungry Harvest is “not an ugly veg company” and that this only accounts for a small proportion of the produce they buy. The majority is just surplus to requirements because, for example, the farmer could not find a buyer for it. “What we sell is a full range of what farms produce [rather than just the perfect food]. We want people to accept food as it is.”

While the debate around ugly fruits and vegetables gains attention, it’s important to remember that wonky produce is far from the only source of food waste. A bigger problem is food wasted at home. More than 50 percent of the food that ends up in landfills in the U.S. originates from consumers.

Tackling this requires consumers to watch portion sizes and find ways to make use of foods that often get thrown out, says Nierenberg.

California-based charity Food Forward is one organization trying to tackle this. In addition to distributing unsold fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and farmers to local food banks, it runs food waste education programs in local schools, teaching students how to use foods that often get thrown out at home, such as brown bananas to make banana bread.

Ultimately, getting people to cut their food waste may come down to government action. In South Korea, a national ban on sending food to landfills and a legal requirement for residents to pay for what they throw away has led to a reduction in the amount of food wasted in people’s homes.

“It makes you aware of how much waste you’re producing,” one South Korean resident told HuffPost. Pretty much all of what is discarded is recycled into animal feed, fertilizer, biogas or bio-oil.  

For Thorp, there is a much easier solution for any fruits and vegetables they have left over once they’ve sold as much ugly produce as they can. “We have a neighbor who keeps goats,” he says.

For more content and to be part of the “This New World” community, follow our Facebook page. 

HuffPost’s “This New World” series is funded by Partners for a New Economy and the Kendeda Fund. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundations. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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The most popular grocery store in every state
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The most popular grocery store in every state

ALABAMA: Publix 

Photo credit: Getty

ALASKA: Safeway 

Photo credit: Reuters 

ARIZONA: FrysFoodStores 

Photo credit: Getty

ARKANSAS: Harps Food Stores

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CALIFORNIA: Trader Joe's

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COLORADO: King Soopers

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CONNECTICUT: Whole Foods Market 

Photo credit: Reuters 

DELAWARE: Food Lion Grocery Store 

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: Whole Foods Market

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FLORIDA: Publix 

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GEORGIA: Publix 

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HAWAII: Safeway 

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IDAHO: Albertsons

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ILLINOIS: Jewel 

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INDIANA: Kroger 

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IOWA: Hy-Vee 

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KANSAS: Hy-Vee

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KENTUCKY: Kroger 

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LOUISIANA: Rouses Markets 

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MAINE: Shaw's 

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MARYLAND: Safeway 

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MASSACHUSETTS: Whole Foods Market 

Photo credit: Reuters 

MICHIGAN: Kroger 

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MINNESOTA: Cub Foods 

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MISSISSIPPI: Kroger 

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MISSOURI: Hy-Vee 

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MONTANA: Albertsons

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NEBRASKA: Hy-Vee

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NEVADA: Albertsons

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NEW HAMPSHIRE: Shaw's 

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NEW HAMPSHIRE: Shaw's 

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NEW MEXICO: Albertsons

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NEW YORK: Whole Foods Market

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NORTH CAROLINA: Food Lion Grocery Store

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NORTH DAKOTA: Hombacher's

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OHIO: Kroger 

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OKLAHOMA: Homeland Stores

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OREGON: Safeway 

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PENNSYLVANIA: Wegmans Food Markets

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RHODE ISLAND: Shaw's

Photo credit: Shutterstock

SOUTH CAROLINA

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SOUTH DAKOTA: Hy-Vee 

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TENNESSEE: Publix

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TEXAS: H-E-B 

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UTAH: Smith's

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VERMONT: Shaw's 

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VIRGINIA: Food Lion Grocery Store 

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WASHINGTON: Safeway

Photo credit: Reuters 

WEST VIRGINIA: Food Lion Grocery Store

Photo credit: Getty

WISCONSIN: Pick 'n Save 

Photo credit: Getty

WYOMING: Albertsons

Photo credit: Getty

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