Food Loss vs. Waste: What’s the difference?

Food waste can be a challenging topic to study. From difficulties in quantifying food waste to estimating its impacts, a consistent point of discussion in the literature is defining the terms used to study food waste.

Among most parties working on this issue, there is typically a distinction made between “food waste” and “food loss”. Although the definition of these terms is not universally agreed upon, Thyberg & Tonjes (2016) defines them as follows:

Food Loss: “A decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption.”

Generally speaking, this is an aspect of waste generation that as consumers, we are less likely to contribute to. Food loss is typically driven by infrastructure limitations, climate and environmental factors as well as quality, aesthetic or safety standards. Food loss most often occurs at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food chain.

Food Waste: “Food which was originally produced for human consumption but then was discarded or was not consumed by humans. This includes food that spoiled prior to disposal and food that was still edible when thrown away.”

Food waste typically occurs at the retail and consumer level and is driven by decisions made by consumers and businesses who consider quality, aesthetics and/or safety standards. Food waste as defined here is more directly linked with consumer behaviour.

It is interesting to consider whether these two terms elicit different responses. Does one evoke a feeling of guilt more than the other?

I personally associate a more negative connotation with the term “waste” versus the term “loss”. Loss implies a lack of control over the issue and therefore, a lack of responsibility. However, using the word “waste” more directly implies responsibility. What I hear in this context is that loss is inevitable, but waste should be avoidable.

And yes, food waste to a great extent is avoidable. However, are evoking feelings of guilt through the naming process effective in improving consumer food waste behaviour? In this case, we must consider whether the negative connotation promotes more conscientiousness about the issue or whether it discourages engagement.

Some have attempted to offer alternative definitions by, for example, substituting wasting with “discarding”, a term that is thought to reduce implied judgment among consumers (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

My question to leave you with is this: Would we feel less guilty about losing, discarding or wasting food? And more importantly, does how we define a term actually impact subsequent behaviour?


Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16.

Thyberg, K. L., & Tonjes, D. J. (2016). Drivers of food waste and their implications for sustainable policy development. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 106, 110–123.


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