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Eating Around the Edges

Jan
7
2008

When I walk into any of the five grocery stores I regularly shop at I turn to the right and enter the produce section. It’s in the same spot in every store. (In fact, most people on entering most stores of any sort begin by turning right.) It may be an accident that the produce section is the first department on the right in all those stores, I’ve certainly been in lots of store where it wasn’t, but it’s not an accident that produce is against a wall. That’s its position in almost every grocery store in the country.

Click to view larger versionYou’ll also find the meat department against a wall; along with dairy; probably bread, beer, and wine; and the deli. The idea is that to collect the essentials — or what used to be the essentials — you have to go through the entire store. The intention is that a customer will traverse most of aisles and will be tempted to pick up stuff that’s not on their list (if they happen to have a list).

This application of practical psychology in designing grocery stores has an unintended side effect that’s somewhat troubling. Wired magazine published a survey in the January issue that analyzed the cost per calorie, the number of calories per 100 grams, and the amount of sugar per 100 grams for the various sections of a grocery store. It’s illuminating.

Fresh vegetables have the single highest cost at two cents per calorie. By comparison, meat is 0.5 cents per calorie as is dairy, while snacks and beverages in the middle of the store are 0.2 cents per calorie. A gram of pasta contains 334 calories, cereal has 344 calories per 100 grams, and snacks weigh in (pun intended) at a whopping 446. But produce provides only 38 calories per 100 grams and meat isn’t too bad at 214. What this means is that healthy calories are more expensive.

The Wired piece doesn’t talk about the amount of processing involved in creating some of these less expensive food items. Oddly enough, more processing often equates to lower prices. Cereals and snack foods are heavily processed with long lists of ingredients while the ingredient list in a potato is, well, potato and the only processing done is digging it up, washing it off, and dumping it in a box for shipping.

The reason for this is mass production. The high fructose corn syrup used in cereals and soft drinks comes from 1000-acre farms subsidized by your tax dollars. When all tomatoes, whatever their condition or degree of ripeness, are shipped to a plant and converted to spaghetti sauce the cost of the basic ingredient is minimized. But then you need to add chemicals to achieve a tomato sauce that’s consistent in flavor, appearance, and texture – in every jar, every time.

A system where more processing produces a less expensive product than the cost of the raw ingredients for sale 20 feet away is obviously warped in some way. There’s something just plain wrong with a system where food that is bad for you like Captain Crunch cereal or Lay’s Potato Chips are less expensive than healthier fare. I’m not going to argue that processed food is bad for you, per se, I’m unaware of any conclusive studies on the subject, although food journalist Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) asserts you should, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — an assertion he justifies in his new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Pollan may or may not be right in his claims – certainly his reasoning has a certain appeal – but it’s pretty clear that much of what’s sold in grocery stories is just plain bad for you.

Pollan means something limited when he uses the word food. Food according to his definion will rot, your grandmother would recognise it, and it doesn’t have any ingredients you can’t pronounce. In fact most food doesn’t have any ingredients. Just because something is edible, that doesn’t mean it’s food.

Years ago I would turn right on entering a grocery store and proceed to the wall, then I’d go down one aisle and up the next — mindlessly emulating the behavior of an ink-jet printer. I no longer do that. I now proceed to the right-hand wall and follow it around the store with only brief trips to the center for things like paper towels, a can of tomatoes, or some frozen peas.

The fact is the food found on the periphery of the grocery store tastes better, is more fun to cook with, and happens to be healthier than the food in the center. So I eat around the edges.

You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

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