Grocery Store Secrets

grocery-store-jpg.jpgWe were in the grocery store the other day. (Yes, now that our biz closed we have to go to one of those) I find them very surreal. There is very little real food—lots of things to fill the belly, and loads of chemicals, but very little nourishing food and a pretty “hospitalized” look to the whole thing. Sometimes I still feel like an alien dropped on a strange planet when I enter. Take a look the next time, think of yourself landing here looking for real nourishing foods and see what you think.

Anyway, we were at the bakery and it was the end of the day so they had just restocked their bread on the shelf. Other customers are pulling loaves in bags complaining that they are wet. Of course they were wet! We know to expect that based upon our experience running a grocery store, but maybe you didn’t know to expect that as a consumer. That leads us to our first “Grocery Store Secret”

1. That fresh wholesome bread (you know, the kind without all the chemicals that can preserve it into the next ice age), that real bread placed on the shelf that you think the store just got in just baked fresh, well, that’s not really the case. All bread, ok, I’ll say almost all since some local stores may very well be different and get bread in from a local bakery or even fresh in from a big manufacturer, but in most every chain grocery store, I’d say with a high degree of certainty, every single natural or organic loaf arrives to your grocery store FROZEN. Yes, it’s true. All those brands in the bags, those arrive “fresh frozen,” then your store puts them out on the shelf as fresh. That’s why the bag is sometimes wet as it defrosts. Now, we never carried those “bread-like” brands with all the chemicals in there; it would not surprise me if they are delivered “fresh,” whatever that might mean for a load of chemicals shaped into a loaf, but who knows. In our grocery delivery service we started by just delivering our bread frozen, but too many of our customers would be upset thinking that we got it in fresh and then froze it days later, of course that was not the case, but we changed instead of trying to explain it over and over again; we would simply take your ordered loaf out of the freezer the morning of your delivery or the day before so it would be nice and fresh and perfect upon delivery to you. We received many compliments that our bread was so much fresher than the store and that’s why – it was defrosted just for YOU.

Most grocery bakeries are not fully functioning bakeries at all, they do not get up at 2am to make the bread, knead the dough, let it rise, roll it out, let it rise, bake it fresh; more often than not, they are using par-baked frozen loaves. If it’s a big chain, they may have a main kitchen miles away where they do make some or most of their goodies and then ship to the local stores, but more than likely, even those are using the same doughs and mixes that are so readily available to all grocery stores nowadays, after all, time is money. Even the bread that they put in the bag to make you feel like you are living in quaint city with a corner bakery, those are all either par-baked and frozen or baked completely and frozen before they are defrosted for your enjoyment.

Oh, and it’s not just the bags of bread, those cookies you think are made right there in your grocery bakery, those arrive as frozen cookies ready to defrost or frozen dough ready to bake up, same with the muffins all piled high and “fresh.”

So, the next time you get that cookie for your little one thinking that they baked it right there on the premises with ingredients you would have in your own kitchen if you baked it, understand that is an illusion. Those cookies are created with a long list of ingredients, some of which you would never find in a family cupboard and may include chemicals that are hard to pronounce. Suffice to say, it is not the cookie grandma made for you.

2. Lets move over to meat counter. All those men and women in white coats, not real butchers, again, it’s the illusion. Some of them, maybe most, can indeed cut meat but all those cuts laid out so pretty in the glass case, you know, the boneless skinless breasts, the boneless thigh meat, the wing drummets, all that you think they worked so hard to chop up perfectly just for you, not true. These things come pre-cut and sealed in a giant plastic bag, much like a trash bag, only you know, sanitized for our protection. Giant plastic bag full o’ chicken parts cut all the same so that the people in white coats can lay it out behind the nice glass case for you. Again I will insert my caveat that there MAY very well be a small local store that has a real butcher on premises and cuts all their own meats and chicken fresh but the vast majority get it all from the same manufacturers all prettied up and ready to sell. These same manufacturers sell the pre-packaged cuts like those pictured here. The bulk bag is cheaper for the store to purchase so they can actually mark it up higher; the pre-packaged tend to be more money since those are more expensive for the store to get in the first place, but it’s all the same, one is not necessarily fresher than the other, it all depends when they arrived and how long it’s been out. At least the pre-packaged stuff has a date.

3. The bulk spices in the grocery store that you think are such a great bargain? Those could have been sitting on the shelf for months. There is no telling. Unless you have a very honest local shop, and even honest shops have a hard time making ends meet, those spices are not as pungent as you might think so not as good a value. Those little spice jars, most grocery stores can just buy them individually, that means they don’t have to buy a full case and wait to see if it sells in a timely manner. You get more pizazz for your buck getting the freshest of the spices, that usually means the pre-packaged and air-tight sealed containers.

The other items in the bulk aisle, I won’t buy them personally. I don’t know how long they’ve been sitting there, can be months, seriously, and I don’t know whose grubby paws went in to take a little taste. Funny enough, those bulk items come to the store really cheap. The store marks them up MORE than the prepackaged stuff. We just assume they are a better value but sometimes, if you take the time to look and compare, you will see that there are several that actually cost more per pound than the clean pre-packaged of the same item. Plus in bulk you have no idea the brand unless it’s marked so always compare the cheapest brand of the pre-packaged, probably the one we don’t always look to purchase. That and the pre-packaged are at least sealed air-tight so will be fresher longer and the bulk, well, sitting there, sitting there. The grocery store makes a lot more money on the bulk so positions them well but a better value for us consumers? That’s not usually the case.

4. And we’ll end today where we are greeted in the store, with those colorful huge displays of fresh fruits and vegetables beckoning our entry into this foodtopia. You know how that lovely display of fresh produce seems to remain perfect no matter when you visit? That is a lot of hard work, go produce managers, and a lot of tossing and trimming. Many stores expect to lose up to 50% or MORE of the fresh produce that they put out! Of course, much of that smooshed, imperfect produce is used by the almighty hot food counter, the garbage disposal of the grocery store that turns junk into gold, literally. Things you would have turned your nose up to in the front counter, you buy and squeal in delight as you gobble it down from the counter in the back that prepares that wondrous array of “fresh” foods. Let’s just say, it’s not what grandma used to prepare the meals with love for her family.

And we haven’t even discussed dairy out of refrigeration walking around in carts of people intending to buy it and then changing their minds and how that is put back on the shelf to the detriment of quality control, how filthy those grocery carts can really be, how grocery stores work us to buy the end caps and treats at check out as well as the products placed in the middle shelves, the sheer amount of utter waste, and that sometimes sales aren’t really a savings at all. It’s all a planned experience.

It’s a dizzying scene, the grocery store. Try to find good real food. Try to read labels and if something doesn’t come with a label, understand it probably did at one point (like “fresh” baked goodies.) Try to understand the game of grocery shopping and play it in your best interest instead of the best interest of the store’s bottom line. It’s not so much nourishing bodies as moving product out before it goes bad.

 Author Annie Malka is a mother of four living in the Florida Keys. She writes about cooking, nutrition, organic foods and sustainability at her blog Hip Organic Mama.

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