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Leftovers: Love 'em or Leave 'em?

January 29, 2013

Have you ever noticed how some people are big fans of leftovers, and others won't go near them? It's a puzzling pattern, and now that the latest alarum on food waste is resonating widely, the time seems right for a closer look. Mind you, the statistic causing so much indigestion--that 30 to 50 percent of food produced worldwide never gets consumed--extends beyond household discards to include food that may never get anywhere near your home, due to countless snafus in harvesting, storage, and the supply chain, as reported this month by the U.K.'s Institution of Mechanical Engineers. These systemic breakdowns can boggle the mind, given the state of world hunger. And so, thinking globally and acting locally, many of us double down on minimizing waste in our own microeconomies at home. The recent blog on that topic is full of editors' ideas for using up ingredients that might otherwise be headed to the trash. But what about good, old-fashioned leftovers--substantial meals we've already invested time and ingredients in preparing? In difficult economic times, making one meal stretch to two or three is simple math that makes sense. A 2010 study of U.S. consumers by TNS Global (on behalf of a plastics industries--read storage containers--concern) found that 80 percent of respondents said their families eat leftovers to save money; on the flip side, the National Resources Defense Council and National Turkey Federation predicted this fall that of the 736 million pounds of turkey Americans would buy for Thanksgiving, 204 million pounds (about 28 percent) would likely be thrown out. So it seems there's more than money driving Americans' decisions to eat or toss their leftovers. "From the biological standpoint, there is something to consider," notes Rachel Herz, PhD, author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell and That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Revulsion and an adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Alpert Medical School of Brown University. In addition to spoilage concerns, Dr. Herz cites individuals' inherent "disgust sensitivity" as an influence on whether we love or leave our leftovers. "Disgust sensitivity is a fairly stable personality trait. It's systemic to who we are," she explains. "Our environment, and family and social influences within the environment," play a part as well in our approach to leftover food. "Culinary traditions are very involved with family. And even these disgust sensitivity behaviors--how long am I going to keep it, if I'm going to keep it at all--are related to the family." Whether or not we realize it, we also evaluate the color and content of leftover food,says Herz. "White [rice and pasta, for example] is a color that is very strongly connoted with purity and cleanliness and is the antithesis of disgust. When we see food with a lot of colors--red, green, yellow--and that contains meat, we're more suspicious." After all, Herz adds, "in the ancestral world, if we stumbled across some meat on the ground, that could be a lot more risky than stumbling on...

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