Study: ‘Humanizing’ Unattractive Fruits & Vegetables May Solve Food Waste Problem

HOUSTON — Over one billion tons of perfectly edible food is wasted each year, and a significant portion of that statistic can be traced back to discarded fruits and vegetables that just aren’t “pretty” enough to be purchased by shoppers. Consumers tend to leave produce with small blemishes or signs of aging on the shelf, but a new study suggests a possible solution: humanize less attractive produce items and people will be more inclined to place them in their shopping carts.

Researchers from the University of Houston say that depicting less desirable fruits and vegetables in human situations and outfits in advertisements and display cases can change shoppers’ attitudes towards the produce and help them look past a few wrinkles or dark spots.

Humanizing fruit
Study participants saw depictions of both fresh and slightly-past-its-prime produce in both anthropomorphized and unadorned states. Produce staged to show human qualities were rated more desirable than the same produce without the anthropomorphic effects. (Credit: University of Houston)

“We suggest that when old produce is humanized, it is evaluated more favorably, since it leads consumers to evaluate the old produce with a more compassionate lens,” the study reads.

Older humans are, of course, viewed in a much more favorable light than old food. Older adults and the elderly are looked at as sources of knowledge, wisdom, and experience, while older food, more specifically fruits and vegetables, are typically seen as past their prime and unfit for consumption. However, just because a banana or peach has a few wrinkles or blemishes that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a healthy nutritious snack. With this in mind, researchers set out to take the human perspective of “old is gold” and apply it to older produce items.

In order to accomplish this, researchers “anthropomorphized,” or applied human characteristics to, several different kinds of produce. Bananas were shown sunbathing on the beach complete with a beach chair, hat, and umbrella, and cucumber slices were arranged to create a human-like face.

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“With fresh produce, aging promotes visible changes, much as it does in humans,” explains study co-author Vanessa Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, in a media release. “That can create a connection with human qualities of aging when the food is anthropomorphized.”

For the experimental phase of the study, participants were shown fresh and slightly older pieces of produce in both anthropomorphized and regular depictions. Participants who were shown the humanized older produce rated it as much more desirable than participants who were shown the same older produce in a normal state. Interestingly, study participants didn’t seem to be swayed at all by seeing fresh fruits and vegetables in a humanized state.

The study’s authors say their findings can help grocery stores and other markets promote slightly older produce. They believe if older fruits and vegetables are humanized in marketing and display efforts, it will lead to more purchases and ultimately less food waste.

“Making food that would otherwise go to waste more appealing to consumers may allow store managers to avoid having to reduce the price for that older produce, which would improve the bottom line,” Patrick says.

The study is published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

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