Monday, February 24, 2014

Grocery Wars

I found an interesting food article and wanted to share it.

We Americans love to hate on Walmart, from cringe-worthy photos of the way its patrons dress, to its ruinous effect on small business when it moves into a community, to its lack of employee benefits. But the chain's ubiquity means I don't actually know anyone, hater or not, who has never shopped there. And that's why this Slate article grossed me out a little bit.

The author compares food products sold at Walmart to those sold at Whole Foods, focusing on a list of ingredients Whole Foods will not sell (but which are all approved by the FDA--Walmart is not doing anything illegal). The banned list includes the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), and several artificial sweeteners and flavorings. The article is worth reading just for the interactive graphics. My favorite is the photo slider showing Walmart shelves and which products would not be sold at Whole Foods. (I couldn't find the slider at first--it's the gray bar on the left). Obviously all the cookies were going to go, but when all of the bread disappeared, I was sad. And it's mostly because of HFCS.

HFCS is similar to sugar, and our bodies probably react to it in the same way. I don't mind eating it if I know I'm buying a sugary snack. What upsets me is its pervasiveness in packaged foods: why does any kind of sugar need to be added to bread? When you bake bread at home, you add at most a tablespoon, and can omit it with no consequence. Grocery store breads pass themselves off as healthy with prominent claims on the packaging like "Whole grain!" and "7 grams of fiber per serving." These statements can be true even while the fine-print lists HFCS as one of the first ingredients. So a shopper grabs a supposedly healthy loaf and unknowingly adds five grams of sugar per slice to their diet.

In Walmart's defense, maybe there are loaves not pictured which have lower sugar contents. And lacking HFCS does not automatically make Whole Foods' breads healthier; they can still contain sugar or honey, which can add just as many grams of sugar as HFCS does.

What's disturbing is not that Walmart (and most other grocers) sells groceries with these ingredients, but the sheer number of products that contain them. The article mentions that Walmart's aim is to provide an array of options and let the consumer decide. Which is great, if you know what you want to avoid and have time to read ingredients lists. But many people don't know what's in their food and are easily swayed by a product's "healthy" packaging. Even if you do know you want to pass on, say, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, it is really difficult to ensure avoiding these ingredients at stores like Walmart without spending hours poring over each ingredients list.

Also, Walmart's prices are lower on many items, and the vast majority of neighborhoods don't have a Whole Foods. Which means Whole Foods is catering to a more high-end demographic. But shouldn't we all have the option to make healthy choices, regardless of income? These aren't dilemmas to which I have solutions, I just wish healthy foods were more widely available, easier to differentiate, and more affordable.

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