Use your senses to reduce food waste

Wednesday, 17 August, 2016

Denmark uses two shelf-life labels: ‘best before’ and ‘expiry date’. The former is an indicator of when the product will be at its best, while the latter is designed for foods that pose a health risk if consumed after that date.

But do consumers understand the differences between the two guides? And has recent attention on food waste reduction changed consumer behaviour in relation to food shelf life? Those questions have been addressed in recent research.

In 2012 a study examined whether Danes knew the difference between these labels, and in 2015 scientists from Aarhus University examined if knowledge of the labels had improved and if consumers were able to distinguish between them.

Further, the scientists examined whether we trust our senses when it comes to finding out if the food is still edible or should be thrown away.

Professor Liisa Lähteenmäki from the Department of Management at Aarhus University said the researchers were interested to see if the major focus on food waste in recent years would change how the Danes act in relation to food shelf life.

In general, the knowledge of food labels had improved in 2015 when compared to the 2012 study; however, the increase in knowledge was modest, probably partly due to the fact that consumers already had a relatively high knowledge of the labels in the 2012 study. Approximately 70% of the participants in the 2015 study answered the questions in relation to the labels correctly.

The new study clearly demonstrated that significantly more consumers know that food labelled ‘best before’ does not constitute a health risk even though the date has expired.

However, food waste is still a problem. Between 10 and 42% of the study respondents throw away food that might be eaten after the ‘best before’ date without checking if the food is still edible.

Trust in our abilities to assess whether the food is in condition varies between products. Bread will often be checked before it is thrown out, but fewer of us taste yoghurt to see if it is edible 3–4 days after the date.

Our senses — and the degree to which we trust them — also play a decisive role when it comes to displaying risk behaviour and tasting the food after the ‘use by’ date. Older study participants and those who trusted their senses were more likely to display risk behaviour and taste food that should actually be thrown away after the expiry date.

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