Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder as I try to find faults in Loblaws’ line of Naturally Imperfect onions, apples, carrots, sweet peppers and mushrooms. As one co-worker takes out a bite of a slightly dented apple she remarks, “This is juicier and sweeter than the ‘good’ apples I bought the other day. What’s wrong with this?”
The supermarket giant made headlines recently for starting to sell produce that is imperfect — meaning undersized, discoloured, misshapen or bruised, but otherwise edible — at a discount of up to 30 per cent compared to its prettier counterparts.
So far, it’s been a success. The Naturally Imperfect line has been selling out at its stores, including No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore and Your Independent Grocer across the country.
We couldn’t find the lineup either, so we asked Loblaws to send us some Naturally Imperfect produce to look at first-hand. For the most part, minus some funky mushrooms and onions that merged together like conjoined twins, a few crooked carrots and some undersized apples, they all look and taste like the Grade A stuff.
It’s this normalization of the ugly that Loblaws, community food organizations and farmers are trying to instill in consumers after decades of being told that an apple is only good if it looks perfectly red, round and big.
Carrots from Loblaws' line of Naturally Imperfect produce. (CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR)
“It’s something we’ve been working on for the last five to seven years,” says Dan Branson, senior director of produce at Loblaws.
“There were fruits and vegetables that weren’t as pretty but were a great value. Very little was being done with them, often they’d go into processing or get left in the field. We saw this as an opportunity to promote value and make healthy eating accessible to our customers . . . In some cases people are not buying healthy fruits and vegetables because of cost. I’m happy to say that consumers are voting with their wallets.”
Loblaws isn’t the first retailer to see the value in less than perfect produce. Some neighbourhood grocers have been stocking the stuff for years (which is why the prices are significantly lower) while organizations such as FoodShare have been filling food boxes and school lunch programs with fruits and veggies that might not have been pretty enough for the store shelves, but nonetheless taste the same.
Peppers from Loblaws' line of Naturally Imperfect produce. (CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR)
“Where we draw the line is on quality,” says Debbie Field, FoodShare executive director. “We know that a lot of people who buy produce from us are community agencies and people who live in low-income families, and that long shelf-life has to be a feature. We don’t want to create a second-tier system where people might say these foods are for low-income people. That’s what I like about Loblaws — they’re making it universal and available to the whole society.”
The difference may be negligible to the average consumer, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency lays out the different grades for produce. Apples, for example, fall into seven categories such as Canada Extra Fancy (the prettiest and perfect kind) and Canada Commercial (smaller, slightly misshapen and discoloured, which may have minor damage from hail or insect punctures). Naturally Imperfect’s apples fall into the Canada Commercial category.
Onions from Loblaws' line of Naturally Imperfect produce. (CHRIS SO/TORONTO STAR)
Now that Loblaw’s Branson knows the demand is there, the goal is to widen the availability of Naturally Imperfect across the country and expand the line to other produce. As of now, Ontario and Quebec get the biggest bounty with apples, peppers, onions and mushrooms (Ontario also gets carrots), while Atlantic Canada only gets apples and the Prairies and the West get apples and peppers.
But despite the demand, don’t expect dented apples to dominate the supermarket shelves any time soon.
“Growers try to produce as close to fancy grade as they can, but there’s always some in the bin that won’t make it,” says Tom O’Neill, general manager of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association, which ships apples from the Simcoe area around the world, and which supplies FoodShare with its apples.
The priority will always be growing the top shelf stuff, but now there’s a greater market for the leftovers, too.
“As an apple producer, we’re hoping to see an increase in apple consumption and this is meeting a need that wasn’t being met.”