Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Starving in the Supermarket

Photo: Lyzadanger
Every couple of weeks I head into our local, gargantuan grocery store. I'm sure the grocery stores all over the place look pretty similar to ours. Row upon row of food products, glistening their shiny plastic labels and pretty colours under the fluorescent lights. The bakery fans aimed at your face when you walk in so you can get a good waft of the sugars just waiting for you. Frozen food aisles (yes, they are aisles now) offer quick convenience and nutrition to boot. Sauces, dressings, dips, and condiments take up entire sections of the store. Processed cereals beckon your children with their bright, happy labels.  Nutritional claims abound!
This from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S.):
Over the last couple decades, grocery store supermarkets have been facing growing competition for the food dollar. More and more time-pressed people are eating out on a regular basis or buying takeout meals. Also, a greater variety of stores are selling groceries, with warehouse club stores and supercenters becoming some of the biggest food sellers. To compete with restaurants, fast food outlets, and club and supercenter stores, grocery stores have been selling more general merchandise items and providing a greater variety of services to cater to the one-stop shopper. They are also selling more prepared foods, deli items, and food to go. Some provide tables for eating in the store.

Nothing says love like a blob of goo fresh from the microwave.

Grocery stores are getting out of the food selling business and aiming their sites at where the real money is, getting consumers in there to pick up a quick, microwaveable meal or a bag of lettuce they can eat with their rotisserie chicken. We are losing our connection to food at an astronomical rate. We have been convinced that an industry can do it better, that we don't have time, that it's the same thing to buy that bottle of whatever as it is to make it with your own hands. Only, none of that is true.

I always do this mental deconstruction when I look at these packaged foods. For instance, when I look at salad dressing, I visually break it down to all of its raw ingredients and then review how many steps in manufacturing it took to bring that product to fruition. An orange juice company would like you to look at that tetra pack of orange juice and think about oranges and how nutritious they are. The manufacturer wants you to think that the juice in that foiled box is kissed by mother nature herself. If you ever make your own juice, you know that it doesn't last for more than a few hours. So, where's the magic here?

The magic is really just an illusion:
  • Picked oranges arrive at the manufacturing plant where they are sorted, washed with detergents, cut and squeezed by mechanical instruments.
  • Juice to be concentrated undergoes high-pressure steam to heat the juice which then evaporates the water.
  • The pulp is separated from the juice using ultra-filtration and extreme heat pasteurization.
  • The clarified juice is concentrated using heat and reverse osmosis.
  • The concentrate and pulp are recombined.
  • The juice is stored in large metal vats until it is ready for packaging or for use in other food materials.
  • Before using, "flavor packs" are added to the orange juice as much of its flavor and freshness has been lost in processing and storage.  And, no, these flavoring agents are not listed, and by law, do not have to be.
"Not from concentrate" juice is really no better, they have just skipped the step that concentrates the juice and wisely marketed the product to convey the idea that it's somehow premium because it is "fresh".   Unfortunately, that's not the case. Everything else still applies, especially the extra flavorings as "fresh" juice loses its flavor rapidly and the juice still sits for a long time before it ever sees a breakfast glass.  The result is a glass of nutritionally-void sugar with the life pasteurized out of it, and only a "flavor pack" to give you the illusion that what you are drinking is somehow related to that orange you see on the label.

What the consumer ends up with, whether it's orange juice, apple juice, mayonnaise, salad dressing, whatever it is, is the same thing:  a container filled with some denatured substance trying to convince your taste buds that all is well.

And that's just orange juice.  100% industrialized juice.  Here's what Anders Olson, marketing director for Tetra Pak UK recently said when discussing a, then, newly launched  'smoothie' product aimed at children, called, "Happy Monkey":
“The kids market can be one of the toughest to crack, however the fully brandable surface of cartons makes them a good choice for brands wishing to target kids and parents alike. Happy Monkey does a good job of this, with its funky, ‘just for kids’ branding, and parent-pleasing nutritional values.”
"Pleasing nutritional values".  Right.

"Febo" in Amsterdam. Automated food at your fingertips. My sister tried one. I'll spare you the horror of what happened next.

Over the next while, I would like to look at some commonly purchased grocery store products and show you why it's just as easy, and far more nutritious to make it yourself. In the case of basic foods such as dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs, it's all about your local farmer (I know, I say that a lot). In other cases, it's just about remembering that we were here long before the Krafts of the world.  When we eat foods made with our own hands, foods that have been grown or raised with care by farmers that are stewards of the land, we nourish ourselves, we nourish our families, we support our local economies, and we are part of the solution to the growing food crisis.

O.k., enough heaviness.. yeesh!  Any ideas on what convenience food I should tackle first?  I'd love to hear it!

Further reading:


  1. Deli meat, cold cereal, and dried fruit.

  2. Good stuff! I'll get at in the New Year. Thanks for the suggestions, Dustin!

  3. Hey there, DON'T spare me the horror. What did happen when your sister tried the embalmed "Febo" food ???

  4. Um, she might not be too happy if I speak of her colon to dear people of the internet.