It’s a frightful moment familiar to many: You reach for a can of beer toward the rear of your fridge and—oh god, no—behind it, there’s a sour cream container from…earlier this summer? Maybe even your Cinco de Mayo party? Like a hazmat responder, you pluck it delicately from the refrigerator, careful to not disturb its toxic contents.
That’s an extreme example of in-fridge food spoilage, but most of us are actually wasting perishable food almost constantly. A new study from Ohio State University researchers found that fruit is the most-wasted refrigerated food, with survey participants eating just 40% of the fruit in their fridges. Damn those crisper drawers, which should apparently be renamed produce graveyards.
The study, published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, found that the average person isn’t much better at using up other categories of refrigerated food, either. Using responses to the standardized State Of The American Refrigerator survey, the Ohio State researchers found people estimated they’d eat 84% of the dairy in their fridges, but polished off only 42%. Ditto meat, which we generally waste half of.
The study says confusion over “best by” labels is mostly to blame. Though many foods, such as milk, are good well past those dates, consumers feel uneasy consuming food once the date on the package has passed. (Thankfully, the FDA is attempting to streamline these labels by pushing “best if used by” as the across-the-board industry standard.) Consumers who read nutrition labels more frequently were found to waste less food, potentially indicating that engaged shoppers know they can keep many perishable items past their stamped date.
Interestingly—and of note to those who hate cleaning the fridge—people who cleared out their refrigerators more frequently wasted more food. Perhaps the middle ground is to know what’s in your fridge but not to be so fastidious that you’re tossing out perfectly viable produce. Mushy berries can still taste great in a smoothie, after all. There are also signs that our internet-connected fridges of the future could one day alert us to food that’s coming close to its best-by date. I’m coming for you, rogue sour cream container.