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Let’s Talk Food: Americans waste food

American consumers throw out about 40 percent of the food we purchase.

Is it because we buy too much food or because we don’t finish our plate? The higher our income, it seems, the more we waste. In dollars, it comes out to more than $160 billion in food a year, or $2,200 per household per year.

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According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, that means 8 out of every 20 slices of bread, 5 eggs per dozen, a breast and a leg from every rotisserie chicken, “produced with the same amount of energy, water, food and fertilizer as the 60 percent we do eat — (is) dumped into the landfill to rot. Food waste is also at an all-time high, 50 percent greater than it was in the 1970s.”

What about our environment?

“Twenty-one percent of the agricultural water in the U.S. goes to food that is wasted. Nineteen percent of croplands grow produce that’s later tossed, and 21 percent of the landfill is content that is rotting food, which in turn produces a whole lot of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

The terrible thing about this is that hungry Americans could be fed with less than one-third of the food we toss out! Thank goodness for the local food banks that take food supermarkets once threw away and now are being eaten by the needy.

When we look at labels, do you know what the manufacturer really means?

Sell by: Lets the clerk who stocks shelves at the supermarket know that a product shouldn’t be sold after a specific date to ensure peak quality and gives the consumer one week to eat it once the product is taken home. This date is not an indication of food safety.

Best by or Best before: This is the company’s best guess on how long the product will keep its quality. Again, it has nothing to do with the safety of eating the product.

Use by: Except for infant formula, it has nothing to do with safety of eating the food.

Let’s see what foods you can save, even if they might look bad (smelling is always a good indicator):

Hard cheese with mold: Just cut off the mold and you can eat it. However, soft cheese such as brie with mold needs to be thrown away.

Severely frozen vegetables: Usually OK. Just add to stews and soups.

Sprouted potato: Remove sprouts and any green spots, which contain solanine, a toxic substance that can cause a tummy ache. Store potatoes in a dark, dry place to keep them fresh longer. Our modern homes do not have basements like the old days, where potatoes were stored.

Pasteurized milk products: Usually have a long shelf life, but if something smells sour, toss it. If sour cream is moldy, toss it.

Vegetables that are starting to go limp: Keep for soup, stock or stew. If moldy, cut around the mold.

Leftover rice: We in Hawaii are good about using leftover cold rice and making fried rice with it. Remember, always refrigerate cold rice and never leave it out. The spores of a bacterium called Bacillus cereus can survive even when the rice is cooked and when left at room temperature. When consumed, the bacteria could cause vomiting or diarrhea.

Round onions with a brown layer: There could be salmonella that is causing the decay, so to be safe it should be tossed if you are eating it fresh. But if cooking the onion well, cut around the brown spots and then it is OK to eat.

Gray ground beef: Needs to be smelled for any funky smells. If it smells OK, it is OK to eat it. The graying is just the ground beef being exposed to light and oxygen, which alters the pigments.

Hard salami and dry-cured country hams: Mold should be scrubbed off the surface, then it’s OK to eat the meat.

Vegetables such as cabbage, bell peppers and carrots: If they are getting moldy, just cut that part off and it is OK to eat. However, soft fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches and berries with mold should be tossed.

Jams and jellies with mold: Should be tossed as it produces a mycotoxin.

Moldy bread: Should be tossed.

Peanut butter with mold: Should be tossed.

Nuts and legumes with mold: Should be tossed.

Lunch meats, bacon and hot dogs with mold: Should be tossed.

Leftover food with mold: Should be tossed.

So what are some of the solutions to preventing food waste?

I have a worm farm as well as a mulching bin to use up any vegetable and fruit peels and moldy foods (but not most proteins such as meats and cheeses).

Sometimes we want to try a new dish that requires a lot of exotic spices.

Buy the spices in bins at the health food store. Buy only what you need.

Think when buying in bulk. How long will you take to consume it all? Maybe you should resist the temptation and just buy the amount your family can consume before it goes bad.

Sometimes when the refrigerator is getting full, do a spontaneous dinner, making dishes with items found in the refrigerator. It is always fun, like “Iron Chef” with secret ingredients, and sometimes pretty tasty.

Give your children only what they can realistically eat.

I am guilty of this.

I tend to plate Quentin’s food and have much more than he can consume. If his father or mother doesn’t eat it, it gets tossed.

Foodie bites

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Hawaii Community College’s Culinary Arts program’s Cafeteria is open this week from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Call 934-2559 for menu selections and days of operation. Depending on their schedule, they might close on certain days.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.