Researchers Find Wasted Food Means Wasted Nutrients

by James Rose

Published: 5/22/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

Evidence of the importance of reducing food waste continues to mount. With up to an estimated 40 percent of food in the US going to waste annually, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future (CLF) calculated the nutritional value of the wasted food. Their findings have helped reveal how much protein, fiber and other important nutrients make their way to the landfill every year.

“Huge quantities of nutritious foods end up in landfills instead of meeting Americans’ dietary needs,” says study lead author Marie Spiker, MSPH, RD, a CLF-Lerner Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a doctoral candidate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health. “Our findings illustrate how food waste exists alongside inadequate intake of many nutrients.” Fruits, vegetables, seafood, dairy products and other nutrient-dense foods are wasted at disproportionately higher rates.

To calculate the nutritional value lost in wasted food, the team of researchers analyzed 213 commodities listed in the USDA’s Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data series (2012 data) and looked at 27 nutrients in all. The team found that “food wasted in the US food supply that year contained 1,217 calories, 33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber, 1.7 micrograms of vitamin D, 286 milligrams calcium and 880 milligrams potassium per person, per day.”

The study also highlights how the nutrients lost to food waste are also the same nutrients many Americans have an insufficient supply in a typical diet. For example, on a daily basis, an average American woman under-consumes dietary fiber, but, if fully recovered, the fiber content of food wasted in the US could re-balance the diet for 206.6 million adult women every day.

“This study offers us new ways of appreciating the value of wasted food. 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,” says Roni Neff, PhD, who supervised the study and directs the CLF’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program as an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. “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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