All of these chuckle-inducing images – complete with cheeky captions — come to us via @UglyFruitAndVeg, a Twitter account run by Jordan Figueiredo, a food waste activist based in northern California. His goal isn't merely to entertain, he tells The Salt, but to raise awareness of a troubling source of food waste: superficial beauty standards.
As we've reported, as much as 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown worldwide never make it to consumers. Sometimes farmers discard perfectly tasty, edible and nutritious produce because it fails to meet supermarkets' cosmetic ideal. (It's not known how much food gets discarded for this reason.)
Over in Europe, several large retailers are heeding the call to fight food waste by selling the bumpy and unsightly in their produce aisles. One French supermarket became an Internet cause célèbre last year with a marketing campaign that glorified absurdly misshapen produce.
Alas, embracing ugly fruits and vegetables is still a nascent concept on this side of the Atlantic. "I wanted to draw attention to this issue," Figueiredo says. "In the U.S., no major supermarket is selling ugly fruit and vegetable, really. ... And certainly, no one is making any sort of statement about it, like in Europe."
So Figueiredo, who is the "U.S. ambassador" for the British anti-food waste group Feedback, took it upon himself to raise awareness — with a side of humor. He's amassed more than 5,000 Twitter followers since launching his account in mid-December, and some big names in the world of food have retweeted his message, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and food journalist Michael Pollan.
Figueiredo hopes the images will encourage consumers who encounter them to demand that their local supermarkets start carrying these nutritious uglies.
He is also planning several events for 2015 to spread the love of ugly, building on the momentum around tackling food waste. For instance, this fall in New York City, he plans to stage a Feeding the 5,000 event, in which throngs gather to eat tasty meals prepared using food that would otherwise have gone to waste. And chef and author Dan Barber is throwing his weight behind the issue with wastED, a food waste-focused pop-up he'll be running next month out of his restaurant Blue Hill in New York City.
So what gives these fruits and veggies their curious and crazy shapes? Rest assured: These aren't genetic mutants, says Irwin Goldman, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While malformed produce can result from genetic mutations, "most of the time it's just an environmental effect," he says.
"They're totally edible and in some cases, quite beautiful," Goldman says.
Carrots can get gnarled, he explains, when the young tip of the root encounters a roadblock, like a rock or a gnawing insect, as it grows downward in the dirt. Sometimes, that will prompt a second growing tip to sprout, which is how you get five-fingered or octopus-like versions of the vegetable.
And one common cause of wonky fruit is poor pollination, he says. For example, strawberries have lots of ovaries that contain eggs, called ovules. If some of these ovules aren't pollinated, they remain small, and the fruit around them doesn't grow at the same rate, so you end up with a funky form.
As for those apples that seem to peer back at you? Those might be the calling card of thrips — tiny winged insects attracted to apple blossoms that can damage newly forming fruit. "A tiny scar by thrips on an ovary can result in a happy face on an apple or orange," says Joe Nunez with the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
So now that we've established that they're perfectly natural, we're curious: Have you ever come across a wonderfully wonky fruit or vegetable in your garden or farmer's market? If so, we want you to show us your uglies. Share your funny-looking fruit and veg photos with us – use the hasthag #NPRfruitshow.