Today’s fresh food is built around an illusion

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What questions do you ask when shopping for fresh produce?

When shopping for fresh produce, have you ever asked any of these questions? This looks great, but is it? My diet app says this has high levels of nutrition, but does it? Am I really getting what I’m paying for? Is this worth it?

Even with all of society’s scientific advances, the billions invested in technological innovations, and the trillions transacted every year, we still cannot answer these basic questions about our fresh foods. It’s not your fault. And it’s not the fault of any one person or company. It’s just the unintended consequence of our best, insufficient, efforts.

How’d we get here? We can start to understand when we look deeper into how the supply chain works today.

The stark reality of our modern food system is that you really only have three ways to understand how good our food is:

  1. We can have it tested in an analytical chemistry lab. It’s super accurate, but it will cost about $900 to test an apple and will take about two weeks to get the results. Plus, the apple gets destroyed in the process. So that won’t work too well for a consumer or a food supplier. It isn’t scalable.
  2. We can refer to any number of governmental agency databases — what most of us know as the “nutrition label.” Go to any online grocer or use a diet app and you’ll see it. But that data is impossible to update on a regular basis (some of it is decades old), is intended to demonstrate a “concept” of nutrition in a particular food, and certainly can’t represent the nutrition or quality level of the apple in your hand. This data says that every piece of food is exactly alike, and doesn’t allow for differences between crops, countries of origin, storage conditions, or individual pieces of food. It isn’t scalable.
  3. Lastly, we’re left with the only thing that actually is scalable. The five senses. But unfortunately, we just aren’t equipped to make an accurate assessment of the quality or nutrition inside any piece of produce. Think back to the last time you were shopping for fresh produce. Do any of these sound familiar?
  • Sight: How does it look? What is it supposed to look like? Do you really know? Why does this one look wrinkly and this one doesn’t? This one is discolored on this side. Is that a problem?
  • Touch: Does it “feel right?” The vast majority of people (including me!) have no idea what “right” means, but you’ll try anyway. Should it be firm? How firm is that? It’s kind of spongy. Is it supposed to be spongy? I can see a mark where I pushed my finger into it. Should I be able to see that?
  • Smell: Have you ever had amazing smelling produce, only to get home and be extremely disappointed by the taste? Its smell didn’t correspond to its taste. What is it supposed to smell like? Strong? How do we define that? This one doesn’t have any smell. What does that mean? And this is in a bag so I can’t really smell it. I think this one smells great, but my wife disagrees.
  • Sound: Although this one might seem odd, we all do it, or have done it. What noise should this make when I thump it? We violently handle cantaloupes, avocados, watermelons, and pears in an attempt to discover something. Should a cantaloupe sound like “thunk,” or “tink?” Should it sound hollow? Solid? Do we really know what quality sounds like?
  • Taste: Probably the best way, but it might get you in a bit of trouble if you’re doing it in your grocer’s produce section. 😉
Using the five senses still won't tell you what you really want to know: what’s inside

Over time, the food industry has leaned into the fact that all of these fresh food limitations exist. Whether you’re a mom shopping for her family or a senior corporate buyer at a major wholesaler, you really don’t know if food is high quality, fresh, or packed with nutrition. As a result, we’ve all been trained to view fresh produce’s quality as synonymous with its physical beauty. Whether it’s the shiny, neatly stacked apple pyramids, the lightly misted carrots, and lettuce, or the glistening skin on those pears, it’s all about imparting a message of, “It looks great, therefore it must be great.”

Marketing is geared toward this. Much like magicians know exactly how to trick your senses, the supply chain knows exactly what physical characteristics it has to deliver in order to make you believe or assume, “This is perfect.” Because of this, the food system throws away massive amounts of fresh food every day when their physical appearance doesn’t match our quality expectations. It could be the best, highest-quality avocado ever, but if it has a slightly odd, inconsistent color or is misshapen in any way — nope. It has to look perfect.

​So how do we push back on the “If it looks perfect, then it is perfect” mindset? Collectively, we need to be brave enough to face the reality that our fresh-food world is built around physical appearances, and not much else. Looks can be deceiving, and they routinely are. When we do the science, when we collect the data, then we see the reality of the situation, the problem. But we also see answers. We see that there are solutions to help anyone (including massive food supply companies) understand what they are actually getting in an accurate and scalable way. Breaking free of the current illusion of food quality is possible, but we are going to need everyone.

Knowing what we’re eating, the difference between produce items, and making informed choices is in our future — we just have to want it. And at TeakOrigin, we do.

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