Crushing a can to toss in the recycling may give you a quick rush of green pride — cans are one of the most sustainable forms of packaging, after all. But recycling isn’t the only way cans help out the environment. They can also reduce food waste everywhere from the factories of big-time producers to your own kitchen. You may not think all those pitched leftovers add up, but the U.S. wastes 133 billion pounds of food a year — enough to fill Chicago’s Willis Tower 44 times. The food waste problem is so serious that the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued the country a challenge: to cut food waste in half by 2030.
To help, experts suggest reconsidering the humble can — with a better understanding of its stamped expiration dates and its precisely chosen portions. With a full understanding of what canned foods can do, you’ll be well on your way to reducing food waste.
Canned foods don’t have an expiration date
Really. Seriously. Those dates on the cans probably don’t mean what you think they mean. In fact, they’re a big part of why Americans waste so much food. A joint report by Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council extrapolates that the average American household could be wasting $275 to $455 per year because of confusion over date labels. All told, $900 million worth of food is tossed out of the supply chain annually because it’s expired, though there’s no information about how much of that waste is due to food label confusion.
The truth is that those date labels are set by the manufacturers to indicate when they — not regulatory agencies — expect the food to be at peak quality. Infant formula is the only product with a governmentally regulated sell-by date, and only then because the nutrients decline, not because the food spoils.
“These dates aren’t defined in law, and therefore they don’t have anything to do with food safety,” says Harvard law professor Emily Broad Leib, one of the co-authors of the study. “The FDA had said because these [dates] really aren’t about safety, we’re not going to regulate them. But what we found was that a large majority of Americans think that food is unsafe after the date that’s on it, and more than half the people throw it away almost every time and 90 percent of people throw food away most of the time.”
The waste is particularly egregious with canned goods. “People ask all the time what food gets wasted the most because of the date, and I would say canned foods,” Broad Leib says. “Those foods, unless the can is opened in some way, aren’t going to go bad or get unsafe. That’s one of the great beauties of canning — you can keep them pretty much forever.”
Broad Leib is hopeful education can help reduce the waste, and she’s advocating for clearer labeling with real regulations behind the terms. She’s also refocusing the conversation away from her main goal so she can keep people interested. “I don’t think from my experience people really care about food waste. When you say you’re throwing away money, that really resonates with people.”
The truth is, no one knows if canned foods expire or not, because no one has done a comprehensive study over a long enough period of time to find an answer. So canned corn is at a distinct advantage over “fresh” corn when it comes to food waste. Actually, canned corn can be even fresher — because it’s usually packaged within one to two days of harvest, it doesn’t have the same chance to degrade. You’re not losing any vitamins with canned foods, either. “The nutritional content of canned food is comparable to fresh,” Steven R. Miller, a professor of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University, told us back in August. Canned foods offer you peak freshness indefinitely, so you’re not stuck with a bushel of great-looking produce that’s secretly a time bomb waiting to spoil.
So-called “ugly produce” is perfect for canning
“Ugly produce” — the lumpy tomatoes and conjoined carrots that don’t win any beauty pageants at the supermarket — is a cause du jour for a lot of folks looking to reduce food waste. Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco startup, is even selling boxes of misshapen fruits and vegetables in hopes of getting consumers on board with eating produce that’s less than perfect-looking. The goal is to eventually get supermarkets to carry foods that are odd-looking but still edible, dropping the amount of food that goes straight from the farm to the trash. But so far the experiments, petitions and pressure haven’t done much to convince your neighborhood grocer to take a risk on asymmetrical apples. A pilot program by Western grocery chain Raley’s was scotched after only a few months, with no explanation from the store.
Grocery stores and customers alike may turn their noses up at oddball produce, but they can’t judge what they can’t see, making canning a perfect way to use unsellable produce. Once it’s been processed and packaged, the strange lumps and protrusions are gone, leaving only the perfectly normal flavor.
“One of the big challenges we’ve heard about is often the fruits and vegetables that are going to be canned are grown directly for being canned,” says Broad Leib. “Because our food system is so big, everything is grown for its purpose. A lot of the fruits and vegetables that in olden days would have gone to canning because they weren’t perfect, there’s not a good way to get them into a cannery where they could be canned for use.”
Broad Leib is considering ways to incentivize farmers to hand their unlovely fruits and vegetables over to canners, who can transform the food into a sellable, or donatable, product. “One of the big challenges is going to be, we need to figure out the resources. What are the canning plants or kitchens, how do they connect with that produce to get it into canned form?”
There are already tax credits in place for farmers who deliver unsold produce to food pantries, and adding the step of canning means the food would last longer, making it more useful to the charitable organizations that receive it. Broad Leib and her team are lobbying to expand the federal tax incentive to smaller farmers, and to add state tax incentives that further support donating food that would be wasted. She’s considering how to extend that credit to food that can then be canned.
Standard-size cans help encourage healthy portions
Not every kid is taught to clean his or her plate, and too-big portions contribute to food waste, though there are no studies to definitively say how much. With cans, the food is preportioned to work with most recipes, so cooks aren’t left with, say, five pounds of spaghetti.
“Smaller can sizes can contribute to having less leftovers, and thus decrease the propensity of wasting food,” says Gustavo Porpino, a visiting scholar at Cornell University, via email. Because cans often hold the same amount of ingredients, home cooks aren’t left guessing what the right amount is, reducing leftovers.
“If you’re going to open a can, you’re going to open exactly how much you want to use, because you don’t want to risk having extra,” says Ally Zeitz, manager of Drexel University’s Food Lab. “When we [at the Food Lab] write recipes, we always try to make it so the can is the center and everything else works around the can.”
Of course, not all canned goods are for cooking. Portion size is also quite important to the growth of canned wine, canned coffee and canned beer. The popular 375 mL wine cans are half the size of a bottle of wine, perfect for sharing without ending up with a bottle of borderline vinegar the next morning. “You can have two glasses of wine with dinner, or share it with somebody pretty easily,” says Owen Lingley, founder of mobile canning company Craft Cans.
And the importance of stopping wine waste is something everyone can agree on.