Supermarkets and buggy whips

Will supermarkets eventually phase out, joining the history books as a phenomenon of the past? Or are supermarkets here to stay, an emblem of the industrialization of our food--easy access to foods that are convenient, suit the undiscriminating masses, stripped of nutritional value despite the prominent health claim on the package front?

Anna left an insightful comment on the last Heart Scan Blog post, Sterols should be outlawed, along with some useful advice on how to avoid this trap for poor health called a supermarket:

I rarely shop in regular supermarkets anymore (farm subscription for veggies, meat bought in bulk for the freezer, eggs from a local individual, fish from a fish market, freshly roasted coffee from a local coffee place, etc.). What little else I need comes from quirky Trader Joe's (dark chocolate!), the fish market, farmer's markets, a small natural foods store, or mail order.

When I do need to go into one of the many huge supermarkets near me, not being a regular shopper there, I never know where anything is, so I have to ramble a bit around the aisles before I find what I'm looking for (and I almost always can grab a hand basket, instead of a trolley cart).

It's almost like being on another planet! There's always so many new products (most of them I hesitate to even call food). It's really a shock to the senses now to see how much stuff supermarkets sell that I wouldn't even pick up to read the label, let alone put in a cart or want to taste. I'm not even tempted by 99% of the tasting samples handed out by the sweet senior ladies in at Costco anymore (only thing I remember tasting at Costco in at least 6 mos was the Kerrygold Irish cheese, because I know their cows have pasture access and it's real food).

What's really shocking to me is how large some sections of the markets have become in recent years. While Americans got larger, so did some sections of the supermarket (hint - good idea to limit the consumption of products from those areas). Meat and seafood counters have shrunk, though. Produce areas seem to be about the same size as always (but more of it is pre-prepped and RTE in packaging.

But the chilled juice section is h-u-g-e! And no, I don't think there is a Florida orange grove behind the cases. Come on, how much juice do people need? Juice glasses used to be teeny tiny, for a good reason. To me it looks like a long wall stocked full of sugar water. Avoiding that section will put a nice dent in the grocery expenses.

The yogurt case is also e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s! Your 115 yo Bulgarian "grandmother" wouldn't know what to make of all these "pseudo-yogurts"! Chock full of every possible variety, but very little fit to eat. The only yogurts I'll look at are made with plain whole milk, without added gums, emulsifiers, or non-fat milk solids, and live cultures (I mostly buy yogurt now and then to refresh my starter culture at home). I can flavor them at home if needed. The sterols are showing up in processed yogurts, too, along with patented new strains of probiotic cultures (I'll stick to my old fashioned, but time-proven homemade lacto-cultured veggies and yogurt instead).

I found the same "cooler spread" in the butter & "spread" section. The spread options were just grotesque sounding. Actually, the butter options weren't much better, as many were blended with other ingredients to increase spreadability, reduce calories or cholesterol/saturated fat, etc. A few plain butters were enhanced with "butter flavor" - say what? And on no package could it be determined if the butter came from cows that were naturally fed on pasture or on grain in confined pens.

Well said, Anna.

There's a huge supermarket about 1 mile away from my house similar to the one Anna describes with aisle after aisle of eye-catching cellophane-wrapped foods. I go there about every 3 or 4 months, and then I only go to get something I need in a pinch. Every time I go, I too am reminded just how many products there are that look more like junk food than real food.

But there's no real money in real food. Who gets rich off of selling green peppers, tomatoes, and eggs?

Supermarkets sell these modern industrial foods because people buy it: Look around you. You don't get to be a 250 lb 5 ft 2 inch-woman by eating too many cucumbers.

Like Anna, I drive an additional several miles to Trader Joes', buy at farmers' markets whenever possible, buy some odds and ends like wine and cheese and raw nuts at specialty stores. I grow my own basil in a big pot I keep in the kitchen and we are just about to start turning over the soil in the back yard for our vegetable garden. I don't need nor do I miss having the choice among 40 different chips, 25 brands of ready-made microwavable dinners, an entire aisle of breakfast cereasl (all of which are virtually the same with different names and labels), or 75 varieties of salad dressing.

The supermarket for me--and I hope for many of you--has become a place rarely frequented, and only for the odd forgotten item. Oh, I forgot the dog chewies the grocery does have--my dogs love them. So perhaps they are good for something after all.

Comments (17) -

  • Anonymous

    3/17/2009 1:15:00 PM |

    A nice thought, to demodernize and go back to the days of a different shop and source for every grocery item, but even when trying to live clean, supermarkets can still win out budget-wise during these troubled times.  I'm mostly living off of frozen vegetables and lots of canned salmon etc.  The food *ideal*?  No.  But it's not trash, either.

    Don't throw out the baby with the bath water!

  • Brock Cusick

    3/17/2009 1:56:00 PM |

    The first and most important problem with grocery stores is that they're allowed to take bribes from the food vendors. That means they really work for the food vendors with the greatest degree of vertical integration, organization & bargaining leverage (e.g., Coca-Cola, Kellogs, the Florida Orange Growers Association, etc.) and not for the customers that shop the aisles.  This perverse incentive explains almost everything that's wrong with supermarkets today.

    The second biggest problem is that those same parties I mentioned above have taken control of the political process that governs nutritional disclosure, creating barriers of ignorance between "customers" at the grocery stores and truly useful information.

  • JPB

    3/17/2009 4:07:00 PM |

    Comment to Brock:  Your comment could also apply directly to the medical profession with a little editing!

  • Anonymous

    3/17/2009 5:37:00 PM |

    Anna is lucky to be able to find all these natural, organic, pasture raised produce, but some of us are not lucky enough to afford or find space for large freezers in our tiny apartment sized fridges. It's still winter here so no markets with fresh produce, no free range hens grazing in the snow and below zero temperatures. However, I do frequent the halal and polish meat markets whenever possible. We don't have a trader joe's and the 2 organic markets here may as well post a sign on the door "only millionaires can afford to shop here." Supermarkets are ok if you know what sections to shop in and what to buy. They are also starting to stock organic products like cheese made with raw milk (which is banned in Canada btw).

    Sorry about the rant but not everyone is as fortunate as others.

  • Lola

    3/17/2009 10:00:00 PM |

    Supermarkets will exist as long as there are people who are simply too busy or don't have the energy to get to all those different stores. In the old days when "main street" could still be counted on, you could go to the grocer, butcher, fishmonger, baker etc all within a short distance of each other. Now you often have to drive, bus, walk all over town to get to them.  For most low income people, this is not an option. Working two minimum wage jobs doesn't leave much time or energy except to get in and out of a supermarket as quickly as possible. A disabled person may not even have good access to some of these places. [When my hypothyroidism was at the height of its untreated awfulness, going to more than one store in a day was unthinkable.] Bear in mind also that many low-income people live in areas where the only food stores are a crappy supermarket and fast food outlets and no other places will open because they know nobody can afford it.

    If we *really* want to improve peoples' health, then we need to work on eradicating the causes and effects of poverty. It's no good if we get an organic market to open in the ghetto or rural town if people can't afford to go there or aren't able to get there. Perhaps instead of all the food subsidies going to Big Farming, we could subsidise business owners that wanted to open in low-income areas. But somehow when the government uses money that will help the poor it's Evil Pinko Commie Welfare but when giving the same money to big business it's fine and dandy. That's why I don't think the government (and it doesn't matter whether Democrat or Republican) doesn't actually care about health despite all the bleating about obeeeeeesity.

  • baldsue

    3/17/2009 10:53:00 PM |

    Nope, I didn't slim down from size 14 to size 2 by walking the aisles of my local supermarket.  Instead I rode my bike to the farm down yonder for my fruits and veggies and I hopped into my car to drive to Trader Joes and Whole Foods for the rest of my nutrients.  And that's the way it's going to stay for me.

  • vin

    3/18/2009 10:55:00 AM |

    I buy all my fresh greens, fruits, fish and nuts from my supermarket. Frozen and canned foods are useful in the winter months.

    Rest of the food asiles are simply not interesting.

    Local green grocer's shop has usually little choice and very often unripe food.

    Just look around in the supermarket and you can find almost everything you need to stay healthy.

  • Kipper

    3/18/2009 11:35:00 AM |

    Supermarkets are to some extent what you make of them. I end up at Safeway fairly often due to my schedule, but I couldn't tell you what was in most of the interior aisles or freezer cases.

  • Anne

    3/18/2009 1:08:00 PM |

    There's no fishmongers or butchers which sell organic produce near me, and no greengrocers which sell organic produce either, nor farmer's markets, but I hardly ever set foot in a supermarket ! Instead I shop online in the comfort of my living room from them ! I buy organic meat, fish, fruit and veggies, tea and coffee, and household items, from my supermarket, but because I buy online I don't have to pass shelves and shelves of junk food and get a headache from the bad atmosphere there. The prices are the same whether online or in store and there's no delivery charge because I get my shopping mid week - it's a fantastic deal which saves stress, time and money Smile


  • Anonymous

    3/18/2009 2:37:00 PM |

    Good points made in the above comments!

    I would LOVE a Trader Joe's or a farmers market, or even a Whole Foods market in my area... they aren't here in the suburbs where I live... all are 20 miles away in the city, or simply non-existent here.

    It just doesn't make sense to drive that far for my food (utilizing some of the outlets quoted by Dr. Davis in his blog post), and only patronizing some of these type outlets frankly sounds a bit elitist... and quite expensive, too.

    Rather, the commitment to good health requires some resourcefulness... I'm into figuring out what I CAN healthfully eat from Randall's (Safeway), Kroger, H*E*B, and Costco... stores reasonably close.  I'm into planting my own fresh herbs, and a small "victory" garden of vegetables we enjoy... it's fun, challenging, and good exercise, too.

    But I am fortunate... I have a generous food budget, I live in a reasonably populated area, with excellent weather and growing conditions most of the year, and access to fresh produce and quality supermarket foods year round.  Just mostly stay away from the center of the supermarket, be knowledgeable and selective while there, and you will be fine... that's my advice... oh, and if people don't continue to buy junk, the "supers" won't be stocking it for very long.


  • Gretchen

    3/18/2009 3:24:00 PM |

    I agree with some others that not everyone can afford to shop at upscale organic markets. Not everyone has access to locally produced farm produce.

    We have to work with what's available, and unfortunately, the people who need the most help nutritionally are the ones who can't afford fresh food.

    We need to educate people about how to find better food at a supermarket.

  • scall0way

    3/18/2009 3:47:00 PM |

    OK, I shop at a supermarket! But I'm mostly a "perimeter shopper" - produce, dairy, meats, etc. But it's convenient because I can buy things like paper goods, detergents, light bulbs, all those other non-food items that supermarkets carry. The place is only a little over a mile from my house. I save on gas and energy. I do love the local farmer's market - but it's only open June-November. I do love Trader Joe's - but there are none nearby. It's a haul to get to one, so I limit my trips. I love Whole Foods, but it's too expensive other than for certain special items.

    But I would not even give my *dogs* food or treats from a supermarket. We get our food and treats from a pet store whose philosophy gibes pretty well with my own. Founded to: "provide our customers with the healthiest foods, best products and highest quality of pet-animals ever assembled in one store...We believe that animals should eat what nature intended them to eat, along with a variety of natural supplements."

    LOL, not only is my own health better these days, but so is the health of my pets. Smile

  • Monica

    3/19/2009 8:44:00 PM |

    Pet snacks from the supermarket?!  Smile

    OK, I have to admit that made my eyebrows go up.  I happened upon healthy eating for myself by first figuring out what was healthy for my pets when the pet food scare happened a few years ago.  I doubt dog chewies contain melamine, and perhaps they aren't a routine in many households, but they're not an evolutionarily appropriate food for dogs.  The only pet snacks I get at the supermarket are the big chunks of raw meat that get thrown to my dog and cats daily... the food they were designed to eat.  (I can almost hear people exclaim how expensive this is but it's way cheaper because the meals themselves are treats because they take 15-30 minutes to eat.)

    90% of the stuff in the grocery store isn't fit for human consumption, that's true.  However, it's still very handy for many things.  You can completely avoid the unhealthy stuff with a little effort.  That's not even remotely possible in the pet aisle in which every single product is a derivative piece of frankenfood.  

    Throw your dog or cat a raw meaty bone and some organ meats now and then.  They will thank you with good health once they have been getting real food long enough.  You will never need a $300 tooth cleaning at the vet, that is for sure.

  • Rob

    3/19/2009 9:30:00 PM |

    From what I have seen of TJ's and Whole Foods, you can do yourself a lot of the same harm in the center of these stores as the local MegaMart.   Stick to the outsides no matter which store you shop in.  Although! I will say that I recognize most of the ingredients in JT's inner aisle food, not so true of the supermarket! And I like the sardines at TJ's.

  • Anna

    3/21/2009 7:48:00 AM |

    Great comments, everyone.  Yes, it's true, we all have different circumstances, different locations and climates, different food budgets, and different ways of coping with our food sourcing options.   The most important thing is to find what works best with the resources/options one has (assuming one knows all the resources).  But so many don't even ever consider looking "outside the box" or think about how to do it without relying on a supermarket.  I am continually amazed at how many terrific resources are out there, not just here in So Cal, but in many communities, practically in people's own backyards, but they don't know about it or take advantage.

    Even the 99 cents store has some good options, if one can avoid the minefields of cheap sugars, starches and processed foods.  That's were I go to shop for  my donations to the local food pantry, where they mainly want non-perishables in unbreakable packaging.  I buy canned and pouched salmon, sardines, and tuna there, because I know so few complete protein foods are donated.  

    I do think it's possible to eat pretty well from a supermarket *if* one is disciplined, truly informed and willing to forgo convenience for real food, but there are so many hazards at the supermarket that many can't easily avoid or don't know to avoid (especially if they are paying attention to mass media nutrition advice).  I'm sure it didn't save me any time to shop there way back when and it certainly wasn't very enjoyable.  I know I spent more money there for food that wasn't as good for us (I was too easily tempted and distracted too often), despite ironically trying very hard to pinch pennies with coupons, sale circulars, buyer's cards, and shopping around.  

    We *are* fortunate with our mild local climate and long growing season, but I know people in Madison, WI and upstate NY who have great produce from their CSAs, too, just in a shorter time frame (though many practice traditional food storage methods, like root cellaring and lacto-fermentation to extend the harvest).  Some CSAs allow for a trade of labor instead of payment, too.  My neighbor and I take turns on pickups for our biweekly CSA boxes, so I only have to make a 14 minute (round trip) drive once a month for most of my produce, a huge timesaver (I do understand there are transport issues for some people and I know I'm fortunate to have a car, but I *could* (but don't very often) ride a bike to get my food at stores or the CSA spot, too - I have two shopping baskets that easily detach from the rear rack).  My CSA pickup point is in the other direction of the stores, but only a tiny bit farther and in a somewhat rural, natural part of town, far more pleasant than the long cashier lines, parking lots,  and stop-& go traffic hazards near the stores.

    I'm probably going to host a new pickup point next quarter at my house, so now our community will then have east, west, *and* a central pickup location, making this CSA even more convenient for more people who want to join (there's a waiting list).  The CSA can to expand from 1500 to 2000 members if they add some new pickup spots.  New CSAs with slightly different membership models have started up in recent years offering even more choices for people, too.

    But is it more expensive?  My CSA's large biweekly box costs $30 (there are two sizes, with weekly or biweekly options and any number of boxes can be canceled in advance before the start of a quarter, with 2 allowed cancelations with notice during the quarter - so it's quite flexible).  Members pay for their boxes in advance for a quarter year (though if I host a weekly pickup spot in the future, I'll get a box for free); I think $15 a week for the generous amount of high quality, just picked produce is *very* competitive with any store of any caliber in my area (except maybe the super low prices at the 99 cent store are less, but even then it would be close in cost; the variety and quality of the 99 cent store produce doesn't even come close).  I know people who spend that much or more on a delivery pizza or takeout for one meal for their family (or dvd rentals for the weekend).  I think I could only do better if I grew it all myself (instead, I put my edible gardening efforts into "special" crops or lazy things like bananas, fig and citrus trees).

    We love eggs and consume a lot each week in many varied dishes.   The eggs I buy via my neighbor's co-worker are $1 cheaper per doz than the eggs I would buy in the store(thankfully my neighbor doesn't mind transporting several doz eggs once a week to me).   Prior to that, I had a "backyard" egg source that was even cheaper (half the store price), *and*  (maybe this is the elitist aspect) they delivered them to a cooler on my front porch because they were already delivering meat, eggs, and goat milk to a local alternative health institute (until the couple split up and ended their "backyard" farm business).  

    One of the few places I do get take-out now and then is the local, family owned (non-franchise) rotisserie chicken place.  I make salad and veggie sides at home, though.  Great chicken using marinade  ingredients I might use at home if I were roasting the chicken;  5 quarters (an extra leg) when you buy a whole chicken for $10 (it's the only thing I buy there, our family of three can eat off it for at least 2 meals, plus soup, and it doesn't have the chemical injections that the cheaper grocery store rotisserie chickens contain).   I watch other families spend $20-30 for a single meal every time I go there.  I often ask for 5 pieces to be legs because I know they always have lots legs (and they have more flavor and moisture), since nearly everyone else requests the "healthy" chicken breast combos.  Sometimes they have extra cooked whole chickens in their cooler for $4 (from earlier in the day or the night before), so I always get one or two extra when available.  And the old guy at the counter is always happy to make up a huge container of wings, backs, and meaty scraps for me, for my chicken broth; it makes really great mineral-rich flavorful broth.   So I have a cheap streak that wants to eke out everything but the cluck Wink.  I know families that throw away more food than my family eats.

    So clearly, I don't think putting a priority on wholesome unconventionally sourced food is necessarily really expensive, nor is it "elitist" at all  - we don't drive fancy cars and make other decisions that allow eating good food easier (both my husband and I grew up in families where money was quite scarce for significant periods of time, but both our mothers were extremely resourceful when it came to nourishing, economical food - so we are *very* mindful of how fortunate we are).  The  "elitism" charge that often comes up in food issue discussions distracts from the real issues.  I'm not suggesting there aren't considerable barriers to eating well for some people, there are, and some are very hard to overcome.  I donate regularly to the local food pantry and am very aware of local "food insecurity" issues, which of course have worsened  lately.  I'm also aware of how difficult it is to get fresh, nutrient dense food into the hands of those most needing it.

    But not everyone is in that sort of position, and some non-supermarket options can sometimes actually work better for people with difficulties sourcing good food, though of course, that will vary to situation to situation.  I'm just suggesting that it can be worth looking for alternatives; there *are* other options "outside the box" in many, if not most places; it sometimes just takes the desire and creativity to find and access them.  And sometimes it requires shifting priorities, which can be hard to do (especially if lacking support from significant others).  Believe me, my husband and I have shifted some of our priorities (financial as well as lifestyle considerations) to accommodate good food (and sitting down to meals together most nights) being high on our list of priorities.  We want to eat well, but that doesn't necessarily mean extravagantly.

  • Dr. William Davis

    3/21/2009 5:55:00 PM |

    Thanks for the well-thought out description of your experience, Anna.

  • Trinkwasser

    3/21/2009 7:50:00 PM |

    A big AMEN!!! from over here. I treat most of the supermarket as a toxic waste dump. Mother likes it because it's cheap and the floor is level. The rest of the town is on a hill and she has difficulty with hills so I get the rest of the stuff from the local shops.

    Mind you, the Organic Shop is something of a toxic waste dump too if you're trying to avoid carbs. And the supermarket is better than many others I've used in the past (Co-Op), they have Fairtrade stuff and the veggies aren't that bad. When I worked full time it was nearly as good as shopping around, you traded quality for convenience to a degree but you need discipline to work one properly.

    Can't beat locally grown meat, fish and veggies for quality though and sometimes they're not that much more expensive and occasionally cheaper, plus the money goes to local businesses rather than to anonymous shareholders: don't forget that supermarkets get their low prices by screwing their suppliers.