Garbage research reveals hidden truth about what we eat


September 30, 1992|By ROB KASPER

TUCSON, ARIZ. — Tucson, Ariz.--Of all the ways to figure out what Americans are eating, William Rathje has the most straightforward. He looks in the trash.

For the past 19 years, Rathje, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, has sorted through household refuse.

By studying trash in Arizona, California and Wisconsin, he has learned to detect evidence of Brussels sprouts consumption by spotting the telltale leftover leaves. He has learned that frozen garbage is less aromatic and therefore easier to study than room-temperature refuse. And he has learned something about human behavior.

He concludes, "Basically, we are really not very good at judging how much we eat."

As a student of human behavior, Rathje, who is 47 years old, seems more interested than worried about what the trash tells him about our diets.

"We all know what is good for us," he says, smiling and leaning back in his office chair. "But we also know what life is like.

"So we buy microwave dinners and heads of lettuce. And at the end of two weeks, the empty microwave packages are in the trash, and the lettuce is in the fridge, turning gooey."

Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from questionnaires and from food diaries, Rathje and his colleagues at the university's Garbage Project, have compared what people say they eat with the evidence found in their trash cans.

Rathje has written about these and other aspects of the archaeology of garbage in a new book, "Rubbish!" (HarperCollins $23), co-authored with Cullen Murphy, managing editor of Atlantic magazine.

Early on a recent morning in Tucson, I sat with Rathje in his book-crammed office and, for an hour or so, talked trash.

First of all, he said, our trash tells us we are fooling ourselves. We think we are eating a healthier diet than we are. Comparing answers that respondents have given to questions about their eating habits with the evidence that showed up in their trash cans, Rathje and his researchers found folks consistently overstated the amount of skim milk, high-fiber cereal and vegetable soup they consumed.

At the same time that these eaters exaggerated -- by 50 percent and more -- the amount of "good" food in their diet, they underreported, by similar margins, their consumption of "bad" foods, such as potato chips, candy, bacon and ice cream.

"It is the Lean Cuisine syndrome," Rathje said. Folks say they are eating fruit, but their garbage has empty pastry boxes.

Another related behavior pattern he uncovered was the "Surrogate Syndrome." The way this syndrome works, he explained, is that drinkers underestimate by 40 percent to 60 percent the amount of alcohol they quaff. However, researchers found if they asked a non-drinking member of the household how much alcohol the drinker consumed, the teetotaler could report with amazing accuracy how much alcohol the other person drank.

Trash studies have also looked at how much food ends up being wasted. When we panic, we waste food.

Back in 1973, for example, there was a widespread shortage of beef in the United States. Yet, strangely, research showed there was a simultaneous increase in the amount of beef being tossed out. About three times more beef ended up in the trash than when beef was plentiful.

Similarly, in 1975, when the price of sugar shot up, the amount of sugar tossed in the trash tripled, he said. The waste increased because of crisis buying.

Rathje surmised that shoppers were worried that there wasn't enough to go around and bought unfamiliar cuts of beef and giant containers of cheaper Mexican sugar, a type that turns hard faster than the more processed sugars common in the United States. Since the big cuts of beef and the large bags of brown sugar were unfamiliar to cooks, the items eventually ended up being wasted.

When it comes to groceries, unfamiliarity breeds trash. An item that consistently appears in a household's diet, such as sliced white bread, is much less likely to end up in the trash than a special-appearance item, such as hot dog buns.

He acknowledged the limits of the trash research. For instance, he said, one of his findings, which showed that folks in the study ate many more prepared foods than dishes made from fresh foods, was probably influenced by the way the tally was kept. Anyone reporting that he fixed a dish from scratch had to list all the ingredients in the dish. But anyone reporting that he ate a prepared meal simply had to write down the name of the product. It is human nature to want to fill out the shorter form, he said.

At the same time he was obviously proud of the ability of his colleagues to reconstruct what happened in a kitchen by reading the remains in the trash. "If there is any kind of vegetable-eating going on," he said in confident tones, "you are going to get some remains in the house."

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