Wasted food, wasted nutrients: Study examines the squandered nutritional value of food that ends up in U.S. landfills

Significant amount of wasted food is consumable at time of disposal, contains vital nutrients Americans need

A new study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future aims to calculate the nutritional value of the food wasted in America every day, shining a light on just how much protein, fiber, and other important nutrients go to waste in a single year.

"While not all food that is wasted could or should be recovered, it reminds us that we are dumping a great deal of high quality, nutritious food that people could be enjoying."
Roni Neff
JHU Center for a Livable Future

These lost nutrients are important for healthy diets, and some—including, dietary fiber, calcium, potassium and vitamin D—are currently consumed below recommended levels. Nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, seafood and dairy products are wasted at disproportionately high rates.

"Huge quantities of nutritious foods end up in landfills instead of meeting Americans' dietary needs," says study lead author Marie Spiker, a fellow at the center and a doctoral candidate in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Our findings illustrate how food waste exists alongside inadequate intake of many nutrients."

The researchers examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data series, and specifically the retail- and consumer-level food waste of 213 commodities in 2012. The study, published online Monday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that a significant portion of wasted food contains the vital nutrients people need to survive.

For example, American women under-consumed dietary fiber—a nutrient essential to digestive health—by 8.9 grams per day in 2012. But researchers estimated that also every day that year, wasted food in the U.S. contained upwards of 1.8 billion grams of dietary fiber. That wasted food could have satisfied the full daily recommended intake of dietary fiber for 73.6 million women, or filled the nutritional gap for as many as 206.6 million women.

Previous research has found that as much as 40 percent of food is wasted nationally, and a sizable portion of that waste is consumable at the time of disposal. Consumable food may be thrown away for a number of reasons, including aesthetic standards, large portion sizes, and mismanaging perishables in refrigerators and pantries, so policymakers have taken aim at food waste and are developing strategies to recover wasted food or prevent waste in the first place. The USDA and Environmental Protection Agency have set a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

"This study offers us new ways of appreciating the value of wasted food," says Roni Neff, an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health and Engineering who oversaw the study and directs the CLF's Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program. "While not all food that is wasted could or should be recovered, it reminds us that we are dumping a great deal of high quality, nutritious food that people could be enjoying. We should keep in mind that while food recovery efforts are valuable, food recovery doesn't get to the heart of either the food insecurity problem or the waste problem. We need strategies addressing these challenges at multiple levels."

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