Americans throw out a lot more food than they expect to, according to a new study released by researchers at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

“People eat a lot less of their refrigerated food than they expect to, and they’re likely throwing out perfectly good food because they misunderstand labels,” says Brian Roe, the study’s senior author and a professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at The Ohio State University.

This is the first study that’s said to offer a data-driven glimpse into the refrigerators of American homes.

Survey participants expected to eat 97% of the meat in their refrigerators, but really only ate about half. They thought they’d eat 94% of their vegetables, but consumed just 44%. They projected they’d eat about 71% of the fruit and 84% of the dairy, but finished off just 40% and 42%, respectively.

Top drivers of discarding food included concerns about food safety, such as odor, appearance and dates on the labels.

“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels mean, and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator,” Roe says.

Other findings from the new study include:

  • People who cleaned out their refrigerators more often wasted more food.
  • Those who check nutrition labels frequently waste less food. Those consumers may be more engaged in food and therefore less likely to waste what they buy.
  • Younger households were less likely to use up the items in their refrigerators while homes to those 65 and older were most likely to avoid waste.

Household food waste happens at the end of the line of a series of behaviors, says Megan Davenport, who led the study as a graduate student in Ohio State’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics.

“There’s the purchasing of food, the management of food within the home and the disposal, and these household routines ultimately increase or decrease waste. We wanted to better understand those relationships, and how individual products, including their labels, affect the amount of food waste in a home,” Davenport says.

The web-based pilot study used data from the State of the American Refrigerator survey and included information about refrigerator contents and practices from 307 initial survey participants and 169 follow-up surveys.

The researchers asked about fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy, in particular how much was there and how much people expected to eat. Then they followed up about a week later to find out what really happened. The surveys also asked about a variety of factors that may have influenced decisions to toss food, including date labels, odor, appearance and cost.

An estimated 43% of food waste is due to in-home practices – as opposed to waste that happens in restaurants, grocery stores and on the farm – making individuals the biggest contributors. They’re also the most complicated group in which to drive change, given that practices vary significantly from home to home, Roe says.

“We wanted to understand how people are using the refrigerator and if it is a destination where half-eaten food goes to die,” he says. “That’s especially important because much of the advice that consumers hear regarding food waste is to refrigerate (and eat) leftovers, and to ‘shop’ the refrigerator first before ordering out or heading to the store.”

“Our results suggest that strategies to reduce food waste in the U.S. should include limiting and standardizing the number of phrases used on date labels, and education campaigns to help consumers better understand the physical signs of food safety and quality,” Davenport says.