Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, fibre, and many phytochemicals (plant chemicals), including antioxidants (substances that protect cells from damage). Not eating enough of these nutrient-dense foods is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In 2017, the World Health Organisation reported that about 3.9 million deaths each year around the world were attributable to people not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
Eating 400 grams of fruit and vegetables a day, as recommended by the WHO, is difficult for many to achieve. But what if eating these unpeeled foods helped solve the problem by adding important nutrients to our diet?
It could certainly contribute. For example, there are nutritionally significant amounts of vitamins, such as vitamin C and riboflavin, and minerals such as iron and zinc, in the skin of seven root vegetables: beets, field mustard, wild carrot, sweet potato, radish, ginger and white potato. And the US Department of Agriculture estimates that unpeeled apples contain 15% more vitamin C, 267% more vitamin K, 20% more calcium, 19% more potassium, and 85% more fibre than their peeled counterparts.
Additionally, many peels are rich in biologically active phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and polyphenols, which have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Another reason not to dispose of peels is their effect on the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, uneaten food, including peels, generates between 8% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane. New Zealand alone, a country with a population of just 5.1 million people, records an annual waste of 13,658 tonnes of vegetable peels and 986 tonnes of fruit skins.
Considering the nutrient content of the peels and their contribution to food waste, why are fruits and vegetables peeled? There is no other remedy when the external parts are inedible, do not taste good, are difficult to clean or cause some damage, as occurs with bananas, oranges, melons, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, onions and garlic. Also, peeling can be a necessary part of the recipe, for example when making mashed potatoes. But there are many edible peels (potato, beetroot, carrot, kiwi and cucumber) that we keep peeling unnecessarily.
Some people peel the fruit and vegetables because they are worried about pesticides. While it is true that pesticide residues can accumulate on or just below the surface, most are washed away. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends washing fruit and vegetable pieces under plenty of cold water and scrubbing with a stiff brush to remove pesticides, dirt, and chemicals.
Cooking techniques, such as boiling and steaming, can also reduce pesticide residues. But since not all of them go away by washing and cooking, it may be useful to consult the lists of pesticide contents in fruits and vegetables. Among them is the one produced by the Pesticide Action Network for the United Kingdom. This can help us decide which fruits and vegetables we should peel and which peels we can safely eat.
If you want to know more about fruit and vegetable peels and what to do with them, there are plenty of tips online, including help on how to use them for composting, feeding a worm, or incorporating them into recipes.
With a little research and creativity, we can help reduce waste and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. It sure is worth a try and help meet one of the UN’s sustainable development goals: halve food waste by 2030.