Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Is Your Supermarket Chucking Foods Before They Expire?

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I am a recovering food-expiration-date zealot. Until very recently, I poured milk down the drain if it was even 24 hours past the date printed on the carton. Then, when I was trying to kick my restaurant habit and reduce my food waste and spending, I learned that the very expiration dates that I had so faithfully adhered to were mere suggestions. Even the FDA admits this: "'Use-by' dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates," the agency says in its expiration-date FAQ. "But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below." The only product that the FDA requires expiration dates for is infant formula.

Given all this, I've been looking for foods nearing their expiration dates at supermarkets: If I can save a yogurt from an early death, I reason, I'll be cutting down on food waste at the supermarket. But I've noticed at my local stores that it's close to impossible to find food that's less than a week away from expiring.

So I reached out to the corporate HQ of several major supermarket chains. Of the five chains I contacted, only Whole Foods responded, assuring me, vaguely, that team members "are consistently reviewing products on our shelves, and removing anything that that has reached its expiration date."

Frustrated, I decided to call the stores I shop at directly, using yogurt as a test case. How long before a container of yogurt expires, I asked, would it remain on the shelf? As a whole, employees seemed fairly foggy on store policy. "I think we keep it out up until the day it expires?" said a guy at Whole Foods. "Wait, no, that sounds kind of sketchy. I'd like to think we do better than that." He connected me with an employee in the dairy department. "For the little ones we leave them on the shelf up until about three days before the expiration dates," he said. "For the big ones usually we take it out of the shelf like five days before." Some of the usable product gets donated to charity. A manager at Lucky told me he thought that employees left yogurt out until two or three days before its expiration date, then threw it away. Trader Joe's did the same, though the employee I talked do said she thought that some items were donated.

Lastly, I had this conversation with a manager at my local Safeway:

Me: What happens to yogurt that doesn't get sold before its expiration date?
Manager: It gets distressed.
Me: Distressed? What does that mean?
Manager: It gets distressed, company policy. We scan it and then throw it away.

Oof. Of course, the employees I talked to were only speaking about practices at their individual stores, not chainwide policies. But grocery store food waste is a well-documented problem. A 2006 study (PDF) found that the average supermarket sends close to 5,000 pounds of food per employee to the landfill every year.

So what's a waste-hating consumer to do? For starters, find out if your supermarket donates near-expired goods to charity. You can also hunt for bargains. Some major supermarket chains have discount shelves and bins, and discount chains like Grocery Outlet sell food that's nearing or just slightly past its prime. Once you get your goods home, treat expiration dates as guidelines. In most cases, you can use your eyes and nose: If something looks off-color or smells unappetizing, that's a good sign that you shouldn't eat it. You can also refer to this handy FDA chart.

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Why the FDA's "High Fructose Corn Syrup Isn't Sugar" Verdict Doesn't Matter

| Thu May 31, 2012 1:19 PM EDT

Today, the FDA told the Corn Refiners (the good people behind that awesomely audacious series of ads about how corn syrup is natural) that they're not allowed to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar." Consumers Union cheered the ruling, stating in a press release that "If the name had been changed, it would have given consumers the wrong impression that this product is 'natural.'" Which it's definitely not.

I'm probably going to take a lot of flack for this, but I don't think the ruling makes a lot of difference one way or the other. Sure, it's nice to make the industry come clean about products that are heavily chemically processed (though cane sugar processing is hardly chemical-free), but the real problem with sweeteners is not quality but quantity. As I've said before, Americans eat too many sweeteners, period. And in excess, HFCS and sugar do the same bad things to your body: They can trigger insulin resistance and lead to a whole host of metabolic problems.

The HFCS verdict is sure to please the sugar refiners, who aren't exactly small-batch artisenal craftsmen. In fact, the two industries have been locked in a decades-long PR battle, of which this is just the latest skirmish. I'm not saying that today's ruling is a bad thing; there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to be wary of HFCS—most recently, the stuff has been linked to memory loss. But just because cane sugar gets to be called "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you.

Okay, done ranting, you can go back to eating your cupcake now. 

Unplugging These 6 Gadgets Will Cut Your Electricity Bill

| Mon May 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

We all know we're supposed to unplug our technological gadgets when we're not using them, and back in the days when we only had a few home electronics—a TV here, a stereo there—that wasn't so hard to do. But as our devices proliferate (see chart below), this formerly simple task has become increasingly annoying. Who wants to spend an extra 10 minutes every morning stalking around the house and finding phone chargers and cable boxes to unplug like we're on some kind of weird easter egg hunt? And furthermore, would the energy savings from unplugging really be enough to make it worth the effort? I asked a few experts to weigh in.

Men Find Vegetables Unmanly

| Wed May 16, 2012 3:43 PM EDT

My mom likes to tell a story about how, after coming over for dinner to our vegetarian household, a woman from the neighborhood earnestly asked her how she had managed to persuade my dad to eat vegetables. Apparently this woman had the worst time interesting her husband in salad. Okay. So, just for fun, let's leave aside the troubling question of why exactly this lady's marriage involved this weird infantilization and turn to the much more hilarious matter: Seriously, why didn't this dude like veggies?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it's probably because men don't consider them manly. For reals:

In a number of experiments that looked at metaphors and certain foods, like meat and milk, the authors found that people rated meat as more masculine than vegetables. They also found that meat generated more masculine words when people discussed it, and that people viewed male meat eaters as being more masculine than non-meat eaters.

Another rad finding was that in most languages that have genders, meat is masculine.

As a solution, the study's authors suggest that "reshaping soy burgers to make them resemble beef or giving them grill marks might help cautious men make the transition." See, ladies with veggie-hating husbands? It's that easy.

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