Friday, May 15, 2009

Checkout Line Musings

October, 2008

My neighborhood has only two "major" grocery stores – if they can even be called that. The one closer to our apartment was my choice this Sunday evening, after coming back from a long walk along the Hudson Bay bike path with my husband and our baby. It was also the choice of many other Bay Ridgers as it always is on Sunday nights, when everyone is buying last-minute items for the coming week. As I walk the aisles I observe what other shoppers are placing in their carts or baskets; it gives me a sense of their lives, what they like and dislike, what they turn to for comfort, how they perceive things like price and value and “healthiness." Tonight there is a young couple who have selected some type of orange beverage in a fancy bottle; two middle-aged women picking out bags of potato chips and cans of cat food and comparing prices in loud voices; a gray-haired dark-complexioned man buying a loaf of sandwich bread and a container of fat-free yogurt.

Each of the three checkout lanes is crowded, so I choose the first, the one next to the small deli counter. As I wait my eyes scan the unopened smooth-skinned loaves of processed meat and cheese, prompting me to wonder how long they have been there and how their makers managed to press their contents into such nature-defying shapes. A reduced-sodium ham boasts the American Heart Association seal of approval and I am reminded of the new packaged Healthy Choice meals I noticed earlier in the beans-&-rice aisle. These tiny meals in plastic oval containers offer a supposedly home-style meal ready for the microwave. Everything in each package is pre-cooked and their ingredient lists contain at least twenty items, most of which are artificial. The Southwestern chicken and (white) rice boasts only 2.5 grams of fat, and 310 calories, yet appears to be a preposterously tiny meal that should contain only about 150 calories at the most. This product also proudly bears the AHA stamp.

Now I turn my attention to the customer in front of me in line: a young man wearing headphones and glasses. His face is pale with a pleasant, bland expression, his hair covered with a hat. His pants are baggy and he wears a loose jacket. As he places his items on the belt I take a look: a loaf of Weight Watchers sandwich bread, a 2-liter bottle of Mug diet root beer, several SmartOnes microwave dinners. I can’t help but be surprised by this array of “diet” food, and think perhaps he is doing the weekly shopping for his mother. Most likely she is trying to lose weight and is following the best path she knows: reducing calories. As Michael Pollan has pointed out in his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, these three items (among an entire galaxy of similar products) cannot even truly be considered food. If your great-grandmother went grocery shopping with you, she might be convinced by the sliced sandwich bread, but she would be hard put to identify the frozen lumps of matter that are modern-day “healthy” microwave dinners.

Let’s take for example one of the items in my neighbor’s cart. SmartOnes Penne Pollo will set you back only 280 calories and 6 grams of fat, an admittedly tiny meal even for a strict dieter, and one not likely to provide much energy for a busy day or keep you full for long. The only reason this product does not bear the AHA heart-healthy check mark is because it has too much fat: 6 grams instead of the 3 allowed, and 2.5 grams of saturated fat instead of the one gram allowed under this classification (which, just in case there is any confusion, is a certification available to any manufacturer of low-fat products willing to pay the price). The list of ingredients on the package of SmartOnes Penne Pollo also contains more than 56 items – yes, you heard that right, 56 – without counting water or the vitamin and mineral compounds that have been added back after first removing them intentionally through processing (which is how white pasta, white bread, and other processed wheat products are made marginally nourishing again after they have been stripped of their nutrients during the processes that make them “white”). If the same meal were created in the shopper’s kitchen instead of pulled from a grocery freezer shelf, it would probably contain only about twelve items, all of which are identifiable foods: chicken, pasta, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cheese, salt, spices, and some kind of oil (hopefully extra-virgin olive oil). Gone would be the mono- and diglycerides, the autolyzed yeast, the lipolyzed cream, the partially hydrogenated soybean oil, the sodium benzoate, and the artificial flavors. Do these ingredients sound familiar? Do they concern you? Or has it become so routine to be confronted with unending lists of unpronounceable compounds on the sides of our food packages that we simply ignore them? Maybe you comfort yourself by thinking, well hey, if it were bad for me they wouldn’t put it in the food. Let me assure you that yes, they will. And they do. Why? Because high-priced processed foods made from cheap chemical ingredients = BIG profits.

Due to the extraordinarily bad methods employed for modern conventional (i.e. non-organic) food production in this country, the actual macronutrients themselves are, yes, important! but almost a secondary consideration in our quest for health. After all, the amount of calories we have avoided eating hardly matters when we are diagnosed with cancer at the age of 40 caused by the artificial sweeteners that have saved us those calories. The dangers are insidious and often invisible, like the pesticides that have become part of the flesh of an apple, but they are nevertheless something we should be concerned about. It’s not only protein and fat and carbohydrates that we are putting into our bodies, it’s all those things surrounding the making of our food and going into the foods themselves: things like petroleum, toxic metals, chemicals of all kinds (including many, like MSG, that are classified as toxins), pesticides, herbicides, dyes and colorings, artificial flavors, chemical fertilizers (many of which are known to cause disease), sewage sludge (used to grow crops), potentially-deadly genetically-modified components, radiation – the list goes on.

Let’s put the microwave meals back in the freezer section, and take a step away. Let’s go to the part of the store where the packages contain only one or two ingredients, or better yet, where they don’t even need a package. All we have to look for is the #9 at the beginning of the PLU number on the produce sticker, and know we’re getting something good for us: a piece of organic produce without strings attached. Or, for a basket of food good for you and good for the planet, forget the grocery store and head to your local farmers' market.

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