Is it OK to eat? Lessons from more than a year of EatOrToss.com
The kitchen can be filled with horrors.
Separated yogurt. Brown guacamole. Carrots coated in…that white stuff.
You don’t want to throw them out, you know, food waste and everything, but sometimes there’s that nagging sense of what-if in the back of your mind that can’t help but wonder—is this a sign that the food has gone bad? Are you staring certain death in the slightly-decomposed face? And then there’s that mantra, when in doubt, throw it out. You have doubt. You’re about to throw it out. And this is where the images and information on EatOrToss, hopefully come in.
It's been more than a year since EatOrToss went live, more than a year since dozens of posts have highlighted that so many foods that look weird are actually perfectly fine to eat. The yogurt separation is natural and harmless; the brown guac oxidized, but the green layer underneath is still tasty; the carrots just dried out.
There are exceptions, of course (tread carefully around green potatoes), but many of the strange things our foods do are actually fascinating lessons in chemistry, botany and biology—not signals that the food has morphed into a fast-track to food poisoning.
This is good news, especially in the United States where studies show we throw away something like 40 percent of our food. My hope is to help people get to know their food better so they can distinguish food that’s simply weird-looking from food—say something that has mold or bacterial invaders—that carries a real risk of harm. Like all of us, I’m still learning tons, but here’s some of what I’ve gathered after more than a year of reading scientific literature and talking to researchers.
One person’s imperfection is another person’s Golden Delicious
Ever seen a bunch of little scars all over a pepper? The harmless little lines appeared because the pepper simply grew faster than its cells could keep up with; then the little cuts healed over. American consumers tend to turn up their noses at these peppers, but a vegetable production specialist told me that, in many countries, people prefer to see the little lines on their jalapeños.
It’s a similar story with “russeting”—that rough stuff you see at the tops of apples. It develops when water pools in the little wells around the stems. It may make the apple look blemished, but some people, including a Penn State horticulturist I spoke with, swear that Golden Delicious apples with russeting are tastier.
The sun can turn things green
There’s usually no need to be concerned if your produce has green patches (not green mold, just areas where the surface changed color). Onions and garlic and carrots might sport green areas if they’ve been exposed to sunlight. And this makes sense: the sun—or sometimes just supermarket lights—can trigger chlorophyll production, causing those exposed areas to turn green.
One big exception is green potatoes—the green comes from harmless chlorophyll, but in potatoes it also means higher levels of a toxin that causes severe intestinal distress if you eat enough of it. (But, let's be clear — that toxin exists at low levels in all potatoes, even contributing a bit to flavor, and you'd have to eat some very green potatoes before you noticed any symptoms.)
A healed scar is usually a safe scar
It can be easy to be turned off by scarred produce, but as long as the fruit or veggie has healed and isn’t sporting mold or rot, it’s just fine. In fact, some research suggests that injured fruits and vegetables may be even better for you because they had to deploy their own disease-fighting defenses.
Holes can form for fascinating reasons
Ever cut open a potato and found a hollow area inside? That was probably a harmless condition called “hollow heart,” in which the potato has a growth spurt that its inside can’t keep up with. Something similar can happen with cucumbers, leaving three holes evenly spaced around the seeds.
Foods that look perfectly fine can cause illness, and “gross” foods can be fine
Notable outbreaks of foodborne illness often involve very fresh foods that probably looked great but were contaminated. Part of Chipotle’s infamous contamination issue was attributed to tomatoes; fresh spinach and cantaloupe have also been implicated as vectors for some scary illnesses.
Another surprisingly problematic food: raw garlic-in-oil infusions. They sound delicious and pristine, but, when made at home and stored for too long they create ideal conditions—no oxygen, low acid—for botulism bacteria to flourish. That’s right, botulism, which can cause frightening symptoms like double vision and muscle paralysis.
On the flip side, let’s say you crack open an egg and see a speck of blood on the yolk. Gross yes, but harmful, no. Cook as usual and you’ll be fine.
Sour milk pancakes are delicious
Never throw away sour milk again! Clickbait titles aside, if you make pancakes with sour milk, you’ll be rewarded with fluffy flapjacks. This is because sour milk is simply more acidic milk, and that’s what you want when making light and airy pancakes. The acid reacts with baking soda to create those amazing fluff-bubbles.
"Perfect" is the enemy in the fight against food waste
Psychologists have known for a long time that perfectionism strangles creativity and productivity. Let’s stop doing this to our food!
When we look at what we eat with less suspicion and more open-mindedness, scarred produce becomes appealing and things like sour milk go from being disappointing to a great excuse to make pancakes. Similarly, when we challenge ourselves to skip precise recipes and instead work with what we have, some delicious things can happen. Stems become pesto. Stale bread finds new life as panzanella. Really brown bananas transform into ice cream. We throw less away.
And now, time for more good news: Despite their lumps and bumps, ugly fruits and vegetables are finding a prominent place on the produce stage. More retailers are selling them, some produce delivery services specialize in them, and an ingenious Twitter handle, @UglyFruit&Veg, sends out daily lighthearted images of heart-shaped strawberries and grumpy-faced peppers.
If we’re going to cut down our food waste, it’s essential that we eat these weirdos and all other foods that aren’t “perfect.” Also essential is knowing the difference between unusual and unsafe. We need to be able to understand our food well enough to look at the discolored empty space inside a hollow-heart potato and say to ourselves, “Oh, cool! Looks like this potato had a growth spurt!” rather than, “Should I throw this out because it’s contaminated?”
Kitchen horrors be damned. We can make safe decisions and fight food waste, one hollow-hearted potato, one sour-milk pancake and one blood-spotted egg at a time.
Thanks for reading EatOrToss.com and please keep sending in your questions!