Mihira Sridhar, 4, was thrilled to dig out carrots and beetroots from her home garden in Dubai. Although they looked wonky, the veggies tasted better than the ones purchased from the supermarket.
A few weeks later, her family found similar carrots at a supermarket, labelled “imperfect and locally produced”. And, that’s how they came across the concept of “ugly food”.
The food industry is driven by the pursuit of perfection. Cooking shows and books display blemish-free, evenly shaped and oversaturated veggies. Consumers are conditioned to believe that oddly shaped produce is less fresh or nutritious. As in the fashion industry, anything that is too big, too small or covered with blemishes tends to be rejected.
Fortunately, we are at the starting line of the ugly food movement, with supermarkets around the world, including in the UAE, stocking these misshapen but perfectly good-to-eat products, often at lower prices.
One of the reasons people shy away from ugly food is they do not understand it. “Ugly food does not fit our perception of what is right. As individuals, we have lost that connection to food and rely on looks and labels instead,” says Daniel F Solomon, founder of HeroGo, a delivery service for ugly fruits and vegetables in the UAE. When he was growing up in Nigeria, Solomon says, he was encouraged to smell and feel food to determine if it had gone stale, no matter how it looked.
“Thanks to the ugly food movement, people are beginning to realise that ‘ugly’ is still perfectly good food, and it has the same nutritional elements as more ‘attractive’ food,” says Solomon. “Farmers often produce vegetables and fruits that look less than perfect, as they cannot control the outcome. As consumers, we tend to avoid this kind of produce, and it gets tossed from the production line before it hits the store. This means a lot of perfect vegetables and fruits often go straight to landfill.”
However, there has been an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of food waste in the region. The UAE is on a mission to reduce its food waste by 50 per cent by 2030. Considering the average person in the UAE wastes about 197 kilograms of food annually, “rescuing” ugly food can make a huge difference.
The time is ripe
In-the-know consumers realise that ugly produce is just as delicious, great for the environment and often cheaper than regular produce. Moswain Antao, a home cook who lives in Dubai, purchases his produce from the local Farmer’s Market Bay Avenue.
“We eat with our eyes first. Hence, the appearance of an ingredient always dictates the first impression,” he says. “We consider it ‘ugly’ because that is how we have been conditioned. It still tastes good and provides the same nutrition, so why not? Besides, it helps to know that choosing unattractive produce can help the environment by preventing perfectly good food from ending up in bins.”
Grocery retailers such as HeroGo, Spinneys and Kibsons are actively selling ugly produce in the UAE. While HeroGo focuses solely on ugly food and surplus produce, Kibsons has separate categories for “ugly but tasty” and “imperfect” produce.
Multinational supermarket chain Spinneys launched its Naturally I’mperfect campaign in 2017. “Ugly food has become a popular concept and our customers love it. The customer base for imperfect food is niche, but definitely growing,” says Sophie Corcut, sustainability lead at Spinneys. “Two years ago, the imperfect range at Spinneys offered only peppers. We have expanded over the years, and now offer carrots, tomatoes and eggplants."
“Customers are more aware of the environmental benefits of this produce, and it represents great value for money. They can purchase premium-grade food that would otherwise be rejected for a reasonable price. It is a win-win for everybody,” Corcut says, adding imperfect food can be up to 20 per cent cheaper.
Plant the seeds
Many schools in the UAE are being proactive and creating awareness about environmental conservation. “I can honestly say children do not look at produce and consider it ugly or perfect,” says Hannah Hall, head of marketing and communications at The Arbor School. As a part of its eco-literacy and sustainability curriculum, the school provides experiential learning where students plant seedlings in the on-site biopark, then watch and monitor their growth, harvest the produce and ultimately eat it at lunch hour.
“The experience takes them away from the notion that food comes from supermarkets. Here, children are immersed in nature every day and understand how the food cycle sustains an ecosystem. If we do not teach children to love what they must save — at school and at home — we are not getting anywhere as a race,” Hall says.