Households toss limp vegetables. People are confused by food date labels. Restaurants often serve massive portions and trash leftovers. Grocery stores overstock their shelves to maintain an image of abundance. Farmers are unable to sell produce that doesn’t look perfect.
At the same time, 1 in 8 Americans struggles to put food on the table. It is estimated that we grow enough food for 10.5 billion people but more than 40 percent is wasted along every step in the food chain.
“We waste an incredible amount of food,” says Edward Spang, assistant professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis. Most of the waste happens after the food leaves the farm, though about 1,400 calories a day of losses per person are caused by weather events, pests, poor refrigeration, or other farm mishaps.
“Businesses that serve or sell food are responsible for 40% of food waste in the United States,” says Jennifer Molidor of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has graded supermarket chains on how well they track and report food waste.
Food waste can happen because prices are too low, and farmers leave food to rot in the fields because it is not worth selling even though it is perfectly good. Food waste can also come from food that is ugly, misshapen, or not “perfect”, like the 800 MILLION pounds of sun-bleached watermelons that are thrown out every year. “We need to revise cosmetic standard across all stores,” says Molidor.
Wasting food has consequences leading to higher prices and wasted water and land. “Growing food is resource intensive,” notes Spang. Wasted food uses 21 percent of U.S. agriculture water and enough cropland to cover New Mexico, says the nonprofit Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). To grow all the food we waste around the world, – about 1.6 billion pounds- it would take the entire landmass of China.
The NRDC estimates that food waste creates as much greenhouse gas a year as 37 million passenger vehicles.
75 percent of food waste ends up in landfills and when these scraps decompose, they create methane, a greenhouse gas that is roughly 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The feds could do more. When there was an outbreak of food borne illness linked to romaine lettuce, the FDA couldn’t trace the source and, no matter where it was grown, romaine all over the country was tossed. “We have the tools needed to improve traceability,” says Spang. “They just haven’t been widely adopted.”
In California, some communities have adopted a “pay-as-you-throw” fee to curb waste that will end up in landfills. In San Francisco, where every household and restaurant must use a composting bin, the city has diverted more than two million tons of compostables from landfills. South Korea now recycles 95 percent of its food waste.
The new UN Sustainable Development Goals have called for cutting food waste in half by 2030. Rich and poor countries waste food for different reasons. While poor countries struggle with lack of refrigeration, bad roads, heat, humidity, and lack of proper packaging, they waste almost no food once it enters the home.
Rich countries throw away massive amounts of food. Americans throw out 35 percent of food in their fridge. A family of four throws away $1,800 in food every year. Yet, in the U.S., we spend $218 billion a year (1.3 percent of our GDP) growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of this food!
To make an effort to save our planet and transform the food industry, here are a couple of suggestions to get started.
Eat at restaurants that serve organic, farm-to-table, and/ or regenerative food. Support restaurants that help the local food systems. many restaurants will promote their sustainable practices.
Look for food labels that identify sustainable, humane food sources (if you still are eating animal products) including American Grass-fed Association, American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Review Certified, Global Animal Partnership. Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC, Biodynamic, and Bird Friendly, among others.
Support innovation and policies for food and agricultural practices that help to reverse climate change. Elect leaders who are committed to implementing policies that support regenerative agriculture, a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by focusing on soil health, water management, fertilizer use, and more. Support elected leaders who are keen on reducing the use of fossil fuels and striving to bring us closer to 100 percent renewable power.
Reduce your own food waste. Make soups and stews from veggies that are a little wilted. Cook just enough for your family and eat all your leftovers. Be careful of products like FreshPaper which is a piece of paper infused with herbs that claims to keep your produce fresh three to four times longer. Fenugreen, the producer, claims the product contains no major allergens, but it does include fenugreek, a legume that is like a peanut and can have similar allergens, according to a recent study. People with peanut allergies should avoid it. Another similar product is Apeel. Apeel uses plant-based materials like the peels of fruits and vegetables to create an invisible, natural coating. The coating is thin, invisible, doesn’t have a taste and has the FDA designation of “generally recognized as safe.” It starts off as a powder, which is mixed with water to create a solution into which fruits and vegetables are dipped. The resulting protective seal slows down the rate of water loss and the oxidation process, extending the shelf life of the treated fruits and vegetables by weeks and in some cases, doubling the shelf life. I don’t know if we will know if our produce has been dipped! As of now, I think co-ops avoid any food with these kind of coatings. The best way to avoid food waste is to buy what you need and eat it all before you go shopping again.
Start a compost pile. That way, whatever food scraps you produce will not end up in a landfill. Composting allows food scraps to biodegrade aerobically by exposing them to oxygen. If you have a backyard, create a compost pile or get a compost bin. If you live in an apartment, get a kitchen composter that sits right on the counter. In cities, there is usually a drop-off center – freeze them until you are ready to drop off your weekly bag of food scraps. You are lucky if you live a city with a municipal-level composting program.
Read about cleaning up your kitchen to create less food waste in the blog I wrote in November 2020.
Cumin seeds come from a bushy, flowering plant, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. India now produces and consumes the largest portion of the spice. Its wispy fronds are similar to those of its cousins, anise, carrot, and parsley. The seeds are harvested after the plant’s stalks have dried, and the fruit pods containing the seeds crack open. From this point, the cumin seeds are cleaned of any remaining dirt, and dried further before they’re packaged.
Cumin is ground or toasted before adding to food. On ancient Greek dinner tables, it was commonplace to find cumin positioned right next to salt.
There is also black cumin, called kala jeera, which is a relative of the brown cumin, but produces much smaller seeds that are thinner and less pungent. The black seeds are more reminiscent of fennel with a sweeter lemony caraway flavor.
Black cumin is not as widely used around the world in cooking as the brown seeds. They are more prevalent in eastern Indian, North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. These regions use the black seeds to make curries, breads and chutneys. Oftentimes, the black cumin seeds get confused with Nigella sativa, because of the color and size of the seed, but they are totally different. The Nigella seeds do have a similar pungent flavor as the black cumin, but are more along the tones of fennel, coriander and nutmeg and they are mostly used for making liqueurs and sweets.
In the 7th century, traders spread cumin from Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean across North Africa, and eastward on their trade routes to Iran, India, China, and Indonesia. Hundreds of years later, Spanish conquistadors brought cumin to the Americas, where it became essential to Mexican cooking, and where the spice is still heavily cultivated. In Morocco, cumin features prominently in ras el hanout spice blends, used to season all sorts of marinades, stews, and tagines. In India, it was added to the garam masala that flavors curries, chickpeas, and countless other Indian dishes.
Cumin contains compounds called flavonoids that work as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants can help neutralize unstable particles called free radicals that cause cell damage. By neutralizing these particles, antioxidants can help prevent diseases like cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Cumin is also a good source of:
- Vitamin A
Research shows that cumin keeps cancer cells from multiplying. In one study, rats that were fed cumin were protected from colon cancer. In several other animal studies, scientists have found that cumin seeds may prevent the growth of liver and stomach tumors. Researchers in another study found that out of nine popular herbs and spices, basil and cumin were the most powerful anti-carcinogen plants.
Cumin may help to kill some bacteria. In the lab, cumin has been shown to limit the growth of microorganisms, including E. coli. The oil extracted from cumin seeds has been used as an effective larvicide and antiseptic agent. The oil even kills strains of bacteria that are resistant to other antiseptics. Researchers believe that cumin could help kill harmful bacteria that’s trying to attack your immune system. This may explain why cumin has been used as a preservative in food for centuries.
Cumin was used as a part of an herbal drug trial for diabetes. The drug successfully helped people with diabetes to manage their condition. Traditionally used as an antidiabetic drug, one study found that eating cumin can help lower urea in the blood—an organic compound that may interfere with how your body responds to insulin.
The active ingredients in cumin seeds have an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic effect. The essential oil of cumin alone wasn’t found to have anti-inflammatory properties.
A hypolipidemic is a substance that helps your body control high levels of fats that hurt your heart and cholesterol levels. Cumin is considered to have hypolipidemic properties.
Overweight women that were given cumin powder and ate a healthy diet showed improvement in their weight and vital statistics. One study showed that a mixed population of overweight men and women saw improvement in their weight equal to taking a popular diet pill.
Researchers have evaluated cumin extract for treating the cramps, digestive spasms, nausea, and bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Cumin extract was able to treat these symptoms for as long as participants were consuming it in one study. It’s so effective that researchers hope cumin might be an effective replacement for people who cannot afford expensive prescription drugs to treat their IBS.
Cumin can help your body by stimulating your central nervous system to be more effective. Cumin might even be able to help treat Parkinson’s disease because of its contribution to the body’s central nervous system function.
Photograph: Vicky Wasik
How to Buy
When you’re shopping for spices like cumin, it’s ideal to find a grocery store where the spice is selling out and being restocked frequently. Look for stores catering to cultures where the spice is in high demand. Since it’s hard to know when a grocery store last restocked their spices, this gives you the best chance of getting a fresh batch. Online retailers like Snuk and The Spice House are also reliable sources of fresh spices like cumin.
How to Store
The whole spice keeps much longer in a cool, dark cupboard, and its flavor will be more pronounced if you grind it moments before cooking. That said, there’s plenty of good quality ground cumin on the market, too, if you don’t have the time or patience for the whole spice. If you opt for the pre-ground spice, buy less of it, so you don’t end up with a pound of stale, flavorless cumin on your hands.
Kept in an airtight container, the whole seeds will last for about a year, while the ground spice loses fragrance and flavor after about three months. If your whole cumin isn’t fragrant when you crush a bit between your fingers, you’ll know it has started to loose its flavor. The spice won’t go bad, exactly, but after it has lost its intensity, it’s worth replacing.
How to Cook
Cumin is a popular seasoning in many Indian and Latin American dishes. Some recipes call for use of the whole cumin seed while others use the powdered form.
Both cumin seed and powder have a rich, earthy, nutty flavor. If you’re using whole cumin seeds, try toasting them in a nonstick pan to bring out more of their unique flavor.
Here are just a few ways you can use cumin as a seasoning in your food:
- Mix cumin with dairy-free yogurt, veggies, and other spices to make a traditional Indian raita.
- Toss cumin seeds with rice or couscous.
- Stir cumin into your favorite chili recipe.
- Sprinkle a little cumin onto a salad.
Cumin-Infused Vegetables and Chickpeas over Quinoa
- 0.5 large onion chopped
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin (use less for less cumin flavor)
- 0.5 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 0.25 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 0.13 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
- 2 cups cauliflower florets
- 0.5 medium eggplant cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 15-ounce can chick-peas rinsed and drained
- 1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes fire-roasted preferred, with their juice
- 0.5 cup raisins
- 1 medium zucchini cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 0.75 cups quinoa rinsed well
- 1.5 cups vegetable broth or water, with vegetable bouillon or salt
- 0.5 teaspoon salt optional, if using water
- harissa or hot chile sauce or hot sauce for the table
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the garlic, cumin, turmeric, paprika, cardamom, and cayenne and cook 2 minutes more, stirring often.
Stir in the cauliflower, eggplant, chick-peas, tomatoes, raisins, and 1/2 cup of water. Cover the pan and lower the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the zucchini and continue to cook covered until it is just beginning to be tender, about 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.
While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the quinoa. Heat a large saucepan and add the rinsed and drained quinoa. Toast it, stirring constantly, until it is almost dry. Add the vegetable broth or water and bouillon and the garlic, bring to a boil, and stir in the salt if you’re using it. Turn heat to very low, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat until needed. Fluff with a fork before serving.
Serve with the vegetable mixture mounded in the center of the quinoa and a jar of harissa or hot chile sauce for individual seasoning.
Hyman, M., Food Fix, How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet - One Bite at a Time, Little Brown Spark, 2020
Food Loss and Waste Protocol, "Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard." 2019. https://theconsumergoodsforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/The Consumer-Goods-Forum-Waste-FLW-Standard.pdf.
National Resources Defense Council. "Wasted" How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Landfill." 2017. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf.
ReFed. "A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent." 2016. https://www.refed.com/downloads/ReFed_Report_2016.pdf.
National Resources Defense Council. (2019). "Food Waste." Https://www.nrdc.org/issues/food-waste.